The new documentary Best of Enemies suggests that if you want to know why the cable news landscape looks like it does—with endless gibbering armies of talking heads racking up hour after hour of airtime—you could do worse than considering the encounters between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 party conventions.
True, there were news programs before that date. And yes, some of those programs featured talking heads. But there was little in the way of debate. To escape the curdled anti-conservative consensus, you’d have to look hard. One of the few options was Buckley’s own Firing Line, which debuted in 1966 and featured the National Review founder debating with guests for an hour.
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It was hard to find someone farther across the aisle from Buckley than Vidal. When ABC asked Buckley if he’d be interested in engaging in a series of debates during the conventions, the only figures he said he wouldn’t be interested in partaking with were actual communists and Gore Vidal. Sensing an opportunity, ABC made sure the author and playwright was matched up with the King of 1960s Conservatism.
What Buckley didn’t know is that he was walking into an ambush. Neither man particularly cared for the other, but Vidal used the setting—which was supposed to be a debate about the parties and their platforms—as a means of attacking National Review and its founder. Vidal and a researcher pored through old NR issues looking for out-of-context quotes to hammer Buckley with live on the air.
It is amusing now to listen to these debates unfold, to watch what Sam Tanenhaus describes as two "conquerors of the Eastern establishment" with their "patrician, languid accents" ratchet up the nastiness as the evenings proceed. Vidal slammed the right as nothing more than a bunch of greedheads, with Buckley as their champion; Buckley turned the tables by insisting that Vidal’s lax morals were leading the nation to ruin.
The nastiness famously reached an apex when Vidal, flustered by Buckley’s having prepared a bit more for the Democratic convention, resorted to calling the conservative a "crypto-Nazi." Buckley—who served in the war against the Nazis—was nonplussed, retorting, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered." Buckley leaned up out of his seat and over his opponent as he uttered the threat; one imagines that WFB might have followed through if Vidal had deployed the slur again.
As Buckley’s brother, Reid, notes, "The left wing was never hesitant about smearing people from the right." And as the liberal writer and linguistics scholar John McWhorter says, Vidal’s attack on Buckley, along with Buckley’s retort, were more or less "fighting words." Buckley, to his credit, later regretted having lost his cool for his accurate, if provocative, description of Vidal, whose proclivities are now well known and whose stridency in favor of LGBTQ equality at a time when such positions were rarely taken is praised earlier in the documentary. Vidal never showed any contrition for his false and defamatory comments about Buckley.
Regardless, it made for great TV. "The network nearly shat," one ABC employee says, with a smile. The coverage of the debates was favorable, garnering as much press as the conventions themselves—though probably not as much as the riots that roiled Chicago. And execs learned that you could spice up public affairs programming with a bit of light hooliganism. The problem, of course, is that you can’t replicate the wit of Buckley or Vidal. So we are left with a wasteland that mimics their style but lacks their substance or joie-de-vivre.
Best of Enemies is an entertaining documentary, aided greatly by the magnetism of its subjects and the excess of primary documents. Amusingly, it implicitly shows us how little has really changed in the intervening decades. Early on we learn that Buckley was one of the few conservative talking heads out there—one of the rare non-troglodytes invited on TV to argue in favor of God, country, and letting people keep more of their hard-earned cash.
Judging by Best of Enemies, that’s still the case. If you take away the Buckley and Vidal partisans (Buckley’s brother and personal secretary; Vidal’s editor and friend, respectively), the talking heads who appear on screen are almost exclusively creatures of the left. Oh, Lee Edwards from Heritage gets a few brief moments of screentime. And Christopher Hitchens, the one-time friend of Vidal who rejected his mentor following the novelist’s descent into paranoiac lunacy, is hard to place, given his late-in-life conversion on foreign policy after 9/11. Otherwise, we have writers for the New York Times, contributors to NPR, professors of media studies at Columbia. We get Eric Alterman, from the Nation; Sam Tanenhaus, the author of The Death of Conservatism; Frank Rich, the theater critic for New York Magazine; and Andrew Sullivan, the gay, British "conservative" contrarian Catholic who supported Obama for president twice and Kerry for president once. The great John McWhorter—a self-described liberal who is one of the most honest writers working today—is probably further right than any of the above.
This nitpicking aside, I imagine that anyone interested in political debate and the state of modern television will find Best of Enemies most engrossing. And, perhaps, will exit the theater with a bit of nostalgia for a more civilized time—when patricians nearly dueled on live TV after hurling slurs at each other.