Sunday, December 20, 2015


Note: This review also appears in roughly the same form on my political blog, The Think 3 Institue.

Over the weekend I finally caught up with Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's documentary The Best of Enemies, an account of the ABC-TV debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 national party conventions and the way they supposedly changed the face of TV journalism. This film is a coincidental companion piece to Kevin M. Schultz's book about Buckley and Norman Mailer, which I read last summer and reviewed on my political blog. All we need now is a chronicle of the literary and cultural feud between Mailer and Vidal, buy it's easy enough to read what the participants wrote on the subject. While the Buckley-Mailer was a lament for the quality of intellectual debate, including some capacity for convergence, that passed when Mailer and Buckley died, Best of Enemies ironically blames two supremely erudite men for the coarsening of political opinion in the mass media. While the film strikes a nearly neutral tone politically, it seems to place the majority of blame for what happened and what would come on Vidal, who was hired by ABC as Buckley's antagonist after Buckley had told them he didn't want to be in a room with the man. Vidal is presented as more determined to carry out a hatchet-job on Buckley than in debating the issues at play in the conventions. The loathing was mutual and seemed to coarsen both of them. We see clips of Vidal debating other people and his voice, always as affected as Buckley's, comes across as more natural and spontaneous than it did in 1968, when he adopted a more stentorian voice as if in parody of Buckley, if not in self-parody, and seemed determined to use pre-planned zingers than in actually engaging with anything Buckley said. His main objective was to get under Buckley's skin, and in an example of "propaganda of the deed," get Buckley to expose what Vidal assumed to be a conservative's true nature.

Of course, this is exactly what happened, to what the film claims was Buckley's lifelong mortification. While all the debates were filmed in color, apparently only a black-and-white print survives of this most infamous one. Here it is complete, as uploaded to YouTube by MetrazolElectricity.

What's interesting is what triggered it: challenged by moderator Howard K. Smith to compare the raising of a Vietcong flag by Chicago protesters to the flying of a Nazi flag in this country during World War II, Vidal answered that the closest thing to a "pro or crypto-Nazi" he could see was Buckley. That provoked Buckley to call Vidal a "queer" and threaten to "sock him in the goddamn face." At the time, Buckley said this was an inexcusable insult because he had fought the Nazis as an infantry soldier, a detail Vidal denied. But the filmmakers told us earlier that conservatives of Buckley's generation fiercely resented the "Nazi" label that liberals and leftists applied to them, not least because, obviously enough, their ideal government was quite far from Nazi notions of the state and leadership. From our vantage, Buckley's resentment only dates him, since we've reached a point where no one takes this N-word seriously and it's actually a premise almost universally accepted that using it (of the H-word) disqualifies you from any internet debate. Did Vidal begin that dilution of this N-word or did time really do that damage? It matters little to the film, which probably resonates more months after its theatrical release now that we've seen a presidential campaign driven almost entirely by insults, though even Donald Trump has not yet threatened to punch his rivals in the face, despite Jeb Bush's increasing efforts in that direction.

Buckley said after the debates -- I don't know whether Vidal ever confirmed or denied it -- that after their most contentious encounter Vidal whispered to him that they'd given ABC its money's worth. The best thing Best of Enemies does -- the worst is to reduce the debates to fragmentary sound-bites that emphasize the snark and bile; it would have been more illuminating to show at least one complete -- is restore the Buckley-Vidal feud to its part in ABC News's controversial and initially reviled plan to minimize its convention coverage -- the other major networks will still going gavel-to-gavel -- and replace reporting to a great extent with commentary. ABC offered "unconventional convention coverage" and, so the film argues, Buckley and Vidal delivered the goods, goosing up the third network's ratings as their feud and the protests in Chicago heated up. This led to other news programs adopting point-counterpoint features, and from there the film draws a line straight to Crossfire and all the arguments we hear on TV today.

While the film's own commentators see the environment today as a reflection of increased political and ideological self-segregation, leaving people unable to truly talk to each other in the sense of seeking common ground, Buckley and Vidal were of the same social class and sounded equally like stereotypical snobs, so it can't be argued that theirs were two different worlds, unless you believe sexual preference crucial. I can imagine modern audiences thinking both men fake, unable to imagine that theirs were anyone's natural speaking voices, and some of the documentary's talking heads argue that neither man could have become a celebrity today talking the way they did. Norman Mailer talked somewhat similarly, reflecting an Ivy League education in spite of a more modest background, and it probably tells us more about this moment in American history than it does about any of these three men that they could be so eloquent yet so crude in many ways. Vidal drove Buckley to threaten violence and Mailer to actual violence, and boasted of his own capacity for hatred, while Mailer was quite capable of violence on his own and Buckley was in many ways a vicious reactionary. I concede that all three were far smarter than today's opinionators -- any one of them might have been smarter than this generation combined -- but they all succumbed to some malign spirit of the age instead of transcending it. They can't be blamed for that cultural change, but I suppose they can be blamed for making that new partisan coarseness sound intellectually respectable, and for encouraging others with more spite than wit that they could do likewise. If anything, they pointed the way toward the uselessness of political eloquence and the equation of insult and truth that threatens to prevail today.

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