What can be said of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. that has not already been said by Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.? Always on television, writing books, and penning essays to showcase their relentless wit and intelligence, Vidal and Buckley were two prominent and (perhaps the most) influential public intellectuals of the twentieth century.
While their ideologies would have to be described as liberal and conservative respectively, neither considered himself a member of a political party. Vidal and Buckley were each a party of one and, as showcased in Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary Best of Enemies, the division and rivalry between the Party of Vidal and the Party of Buckley was far greater than that of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Best of Enemies details the series of ten debates between Vidal and Buckley that were held during the Republican and Democratic Conventions in 1968. In years prior, network news stations had covered the conventions “gavel to gavel,” doing nothing more than recording the happenings on the convention floor and broadcasting speeches. However, in an attempt to boost their ratings, ABC – then a struggling news network in the shadow of NBC and CBS– opted to nix typical convention coverage and instead put two gadflies in a cage, rolled the cameras, and let them clash.
With two men like Buckley and Vidal, the discussion had the potential to be one of rich ideas crafted with beautiful language and articulated in long-disposed of transatlantic accents. However, what ensued seconds after moderator Howard K. Smith's introduction were vicious and personal attacks — a culmination of the animosity between the two men that had been building up for years.
The film’s greatest achievement is the way in which it illustrates how the Buckley-Vidal debates were a microcosm of a divided country that seemed beyond repair. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed just a few months prior, the counterculture movement was thriving, the Vietnam War was raging, and race riots were a daily occurrence. As Sam Tanenhaus says, “the country is being split at the seams." And if two brilliant men could not have a reasonable conversation for ten minutes, then how could a nation be restored?
The split that Tanenhaus refers to is an ideological one. Vidal represented the progressive, anti-establishment, anti-war movement that wanted to bring about a new order. Buckley, in the spirit of National Review — the magazine he founded — was “standing athwart history, yelling Stop,” advocating for the restoration of law and order, the preservation of traditional values, and the perpetuation of the war in Vietnam.
Both Buckley and Vidal believed that the other was dangerous, and that if his opponent were not taken down, then his ideas would destroy the country. This made the debate personal and, as Christopher Hitchens confirms, the hatred real.
This spite is showcased no clearer than during the ninth debate, which ended with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-nazi,” and Buckley calling Vidal a “queer.” The exchange cemented a decades-long feud between the two men that resulted in provocative essays in Esquire, multiple libel lawsuits, and a series of sly smiles every time one was asked about the other.
Gordon and Neville’s picture persuasively argues that that moment marked the beginning of a new era of television, where news networks, after seeing ABC’s phenomenal ratings in the wake of the debates, ended gavel-to-gavel coverage and instead brought on commentators to clash over the day’s events. Modern news began to form. Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, George Will, and other talking heads were born out of the ashes of the Buckley-Vidal confrontation.
While Vidal and Buckley gave birth to the pundit class, they established a precedent that has yet to be met. Insults aside, the way in which the two men could debate, articulate, and postulate was political commentary at its peak. Best of Enemies has us longing for the re-emergence of a political discourse with individuals like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.