“Best of Enemies:” 1968’s Buckley-Vidal debates, and how they helped spawn Trump

buckleyvidalGore Vidal’s and William F. Buckley’s political views were as diametrically opposed as they could be, but the two men shared one major characteristic: They were both insufferable narcissists.

That’s one of my main takeaways from “Best of Enemies,” an excellent documentary chronicling a series of television appearances by Vidal and Buckley during the 1968 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. According to the film, someone at ABC News had the innovative [at the time] idea of putting the ultra-conservative Buckley—editor of the politically influential National Review—in a studio with Vidal—the best-selling author, screenwriter and liberal pundit—and having them debate the issues arising at each convention. The results were explosive—and they paved the way to much of what passes for political debate and news reporting today.

I wish I could say that I remember the series. I did, in fact, watch the 1968 conventions—mostly in horror, especially when the Democratic convention in Chicago devolved into a police riot against anti-war protesters. But I wasn’t watching ABC—no one watched ABC when CBS had Walter Cronkite and NBC had Huntley/Brinkley—so I missed the whole debacle within the debacle.

And If I ever did know about it, I had long ago forgotten the infamous low point, when Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-fascist on live tv, prompting Buckley to clench his fist, call Vidal a “queer,” and threaten to punch Vidal in the face right there..

That confrontation is the central image of “Best of Enemies.” But there’s a lot more, both in the lead-in to that moment and in the follow-up on its aftermath. Much of the documentary consists of contemporaneously filmed and videotaped news broadcasts of the day. I’m happy to report that the filmmakers do not seem to have remastered the tapes—so we see them much the way they appeared live on our tv’s—grainy, sometimes out of focus and static-y, and often clumsily produced. The result is a time-machine ride back to the way we actually saw things in 1968. [And the opportunity to name-check politicians and celebrities who appear in the background in some of the coverage. Everett Dirksen! Bob Dole! Muhammad Ali!]

Between the live broadcasts are interviews with people who were behind-the-scenes: a former president of ABC News, William Buckley’s seemingly nicer younger brother, a close friend of Vidal’s, and television-interviewer extraordinaire Dick Cavett. Their candid remarks bring to life the seething animosity between Vidal and Buckley, which endured long after their television series ended: Their mutual hatred was not staged, and not just a matter of radically different political philosophies—it was personal, and it showed.

In the debates themselves, both exemplified the worst traits of people who enjoy calling themselves intellectuals. They were pompous. They were condescending. They struck intellectual poses and rolled their eyes at each other’s statements. They spoke in the affected tones of the Eastern-elite class of the day.

Both came prepared to try to decimate the other, or to cause him to self-destruct. Vidal practiced his zingers with reporters before the debates. He gave Buckley’s magazine the Voldemort treatment: He refused to utter its name and claimed that he never read it. For his part, Buckley came armed to one of the debates with a surprise dirty trick apparently designed to completely unnerve Vidal: He produced what he purported to be a hand-written note from Robert Kennedy, in which Kennedy bad-mouthed Vidal [who was a close confidante of Jacqueline Kennedy]. Buckley’s move was in especially bad taste, considering that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated less than three months earlier.

In the end, the whole thing boiled down to a clash of giant egos. It was more about putting down the other guy, serving up the best one-liners and winning gotcha points than it was about which political philosophy was morally defensible and better for the country and its people. Their on-screen clashes turned out to be headline-makers that boosted ABC’s also-ran ratings. TV executives learned from Vidal and Buckley’s confrontations that giving obnoxious people air time was financially beneficial. The media’s war on substance had begun, or as one commenter in the film put it, it was the start of the tug-of-war between “illumination and viewability.”

I think we know who won.