In 1968, the last place network news program in the country, ABC, figured it needed to give a jolt to its coverage of the two Presidential Nominating Conventions. This was an era in which network news was the most respected source of information for the majority of the citizenry. Sober, deep-toned white men -- almost always from the Midwest -- read reports on the economy and the Congress and Vietnam, and the nation sat as in church, occasionally shouting back at the set, but still eager to be informed.
While CBS and NBC were planning gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Miami and Chicago conventions, ABC could only cough up enough money to stay on for 90 minutes a night. (They couldn't very well disrupt the Wednesday night lineup of Here Come the Brides and Peyton Place). So, in order to give those 90 minutes the necessary jolt, ABC signed up two of the leading intellectuals of the day, one the poster boy for the new Conservatism and the other the enfant terrible of the boundary-pushing left. The idea was to have the two men (both white, but decidedly not Midwesterners) engage in fifteen minutes of debate on the issues of the day.
But William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal had other intentions.
The ABC "debates" between Buckley and Vidal, and their effect on journalism, politics and culture at large, is the subject of a fascinating new documentary by directors Morgan Neville (Oscar winning producer of 20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon (much-awarded producer of long form music videos). The film, Best of Enemies, five years in the making, has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures for a July release.
The movie begins with some immediate background on where the nation and the national media stood in 1968, but it understands that its greatest assets are the two principles themselves. Buckley and Vidal were titans of verbal argument. They both had rigid opinions on the role of government, on religion, on sex, on the poor -- on everything, really. And they were in disagreement on every single issue. Their verbal sparring is astonishing to hear.
Unfortunately, what they engaged in was not a debate of issues. Though edited for the movie, it is not hard to see that both men had one primary agenda and that was to bury their opponent. Several of the talking heads who offer opinions and anecdotes during the film refer to this form of debate as a "blood sport," and it is obvious that they had great enmity for each other. Vidal even scripted his seemingly ad-libbed one-line insults, usually focused on Buckley's imperious disregard for the poor. The outwardly prudish Buckley, on the other hand, missed no opportunity to refer to Vidal's salacious novel (later turned into a truly awful movie itself) Myra Breckinridge when accusing him of all forms orgiastic immorality.
Fortunately, though on opposite sides of the debate on morality, both men were equally promiscuous when it came to appearing on television, and so in addition to the debates themselves, Neville and Gordon have numerous TV sound bites from which to choose. Since both men wrote voluminously, the directors also employed Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow to "quote" some of their most trenchant written passages. And they secured a wealth of interviews with the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Brooke Gladstone and Dick Cavett to comment on both the men and their impact on the culture of the time.
Neville and Gordon knew they had a very intriguing and very funny piece of history on their hands when they set out to make their film. And as an entertainment, listening to two brilliant men who despise each other go at it is great fun. But they have a thesis that goes beyond the simple verbal warfare. Most of the commentators see the Buckley-Vidal debates as the dawn of the current era of personality-driven political analysis. There is a brief snippet toward the end of the movie showing countless present-day talking heads screaming at each other or at the world at large. Students of political history will understand that this style of personal animosity is nothing new. When Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with his cane in the Senate chamber in 1856, the "blood sport" nature of American politics was firmly established. But mass media, in the form of television, certainly accelerated the disintegration of respectful debate, and there's no denying that Buckley and Vidal were instrumental in that breakdown.
The realization that two such brilliant minds -- the brightest of their generation -- could allow personal hatred and the burning desire to win at all costs completely derail any semblance of useful debate is the real heartbreak of Best of Enemies. Today, there are more voices than ever floating through the air, and they are almost all half wits when held up against Buckley and Vidal. How can we possibly expect them to turn back the tide of ad hominem attack?
There's another lesson to learn from Best of Enemies, and for me, this is the most jarring part. One of Vidal's primary charges against Buckley was that Buckley was inherently opposed to democracy. Vidal claimed that Buckley was an imperialist at heart who thought the educated, privileged classes had the right and the responsibility to expand their reach over inferior peoples. He feared that the country was headed in this direction. At one stunning moment toward the end of the film, Buckley's brother, Reid, casually admits that time has proven Vidal correct.
America claims to be a democracy. Yet as we gear up for a presidential election that may well pit one potential dynastic family, the Clintons, against an established political dynasty, the Bushes; as our Supreme Court continues to codify the buying and selling of political candidates; as news degenerates into cult of personality, it is becoming harder and harder to argue that this is not the type of culture most Americans desire. After all, poll after poll indicates public disgust with negative political advertising, and yet negative political advertising continues to be effective.
The most poignant sections of Best of Enemies come when we see Buckley and Vidal late in their lives. There is a weariness about them that may be common to all men nearing the end of their journeys, but which seems particularly sad considering the vibrancy both had exhibited throughout their lives. Though neither comments on the impact their 1968 debates may have had on current political discourse (Buckley died before the film was in development), it is not hard to imagine they felt some regret at helping to usher in an era of theatrical journalism.