1968 was a seminal year in American politics: Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated within a few months of one another; Richard Nixon was elected the 37th President of the United States; and, last but probably least, ABC News hosted William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal participated in a series of debates backgrounded by the lily-white Republican Convention and the brutality of the Chicago P.D. at its Democratic counterpart.
Best of Enemies
“Best of Enemies,” the lively, skillfully crafted creation of directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, documents the histories of the debate and its combatants. ABC News developed the debates out of economic necessity. The network was a perpetual bronze medalist in a three-horse race, lacking the stalwart to attract regular viewers that both NBC and CBS had in Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, respectively. Thus, they put all their money on an unlikely but provocative winner, but their gamble paid off.
William F. Buckley, Jr. was the founder of the highly influential National Review and the St. Paul of the Neoconservative movement. He thought Gore Vidal, and his best-selling novel about the titular transgender woman Myra Breckinridge, Satan. And vice versa. After being hired, Buckley said he would not debate any Marxists. Or Gore Vidal.
So, of course, ABC hired him.
Well-practiced in arrogance and wit, Buckley and Vidal were just close enough in their effete affectations and just far enough in their cultural and political views to light the spark of a television bomb. Both were aristocrats, but also distanced from the aristocracy. They spoke in “languid, patrician tongues,” as Buckley’s surviving brother summed it up, gilded by all the benefits of their class. Buckley went to Yale, but Vidal—who attended prestigious prep schools—had the sea as his Harvard and his Yale.
But, most importantly, they were respected and influential intellectuals of their day. It is the most startling anachronism of the film. “Best of Enemies” harkens back to a day when (some) leading intellectuals frequented television. It also reveals how ineffectual of a format television is for nuanced intellectual debate. Television adores the sound bite and the clip. Ephemerality is its fuel. So, for men who write 600-page novels, television is bound to fail.
The Buckley-Vidal debate was not just a political battle, but a cultural one in the massive cultural warzone of the ’60s. Their debates were a contemptuous conflagration that reached its incendiary apotheosis in one infamous moment: In a battle of skilled and savage wits, Vidal provided a fatal sting by calling Buckley a “pro- or crypto-Nazi.” Buckley’s response was the original “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” moment: he leaned toward Vidal with absolute hatred, cracking the placidity of his aristocratic facade, and said: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
In the aftermath, Vidal cannot contain his glee, nor Buckley his devastation. Vidal coaxed him into self-mutilation, and he obliged. Although Buckley would continue to have a successful career (he was influential in landing the Messiah of the Neocons in the Oval Office), the moment would linger within him with great regret. The Buckley-Vidal debate would spill over into multiple Esquire articles and subsequent litigation.
One of the documentary’s main arguments is that the Buckley-Vidal debate laid the foundation for modern network news television, that it was the progenitor of the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the world. This is a slightly hyperbolic claim; television was headed in this direction from the beginning. But if the Buckley-Vidal debate didn’t breed contemporary talking-heads television, it undoubtedly made the soil more fertile and the field more vast.