The year was 1968. There were—gasp!—just three television networks and ABC was lagging way behind its competitors CBS and NBC. (“They would’ve been in fourth place,” one pundit cracks, “but there were only three networks.”)
Both CBS and NBC were planning on doing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican National Convention (this was the Richard Nixon year), but ABC—which didn’t have a big name like Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley on its roster and was plagued by ersatz-looking sets and a general sense of amateurism—decided to try something different. They would precede their convention coverage with a debate between two well known public intellectuals on opposite sides of what would one day be known as the culture wars. Best of Enemies is Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s almost obscenely entertaining documentary about those debates.
At first glance, the two debaters couldn’t have been more different. William F. Buckley Jr., the founder and editor of the highly conservative National Review, believed in restoring so-called traditional American values, and was a good friend and adviser to Ronald Reagan. Vidal was a homosexual, a gleeful provocateur, and the screenwriter of Caligula. But in truth, they had many things in common: Both were white men who came from privileged backgrounds. Both had political aspirations of their own that had been thwarted. Both spoke in the kind of clipped, patrician tones that made them sound vaguely British. Neither had ever lost a debate, certainly not in his own mind. Naturally, they hated each other.
Many critics have noted that these debates ushered in the age of pundit TV—shows like Crossfire and Hardball, where politically at-odds commentators hurl broadsides at each other. This is true, but not the whole story. The debates also ushered in, or at least crystalized, no less than the beginnings of the modern conservative and liberal movements as we know them. You have to remember that this was a time of extreme social upheaval. The civil rights movement was in full swing, as was the anti-war movement, not to mention the counter-culture movement. It was Buckley Jr. who first realized that Republicans could appeal to working class white men, playing on their fear of a country changing too rapidly being overtaken by “others.” And it was Vidal, an openly gay man who wrote screenplays about orgies and books about transsexuals and bondage, who represented much of what they feared.
And while these debates may have led to the shouting-match TV culture that most agree is toxic, they were certainly a much higher example of the form. The level of erudition and wit on display is staggering; Buckley Jr. and Vidal would probably be dismissed as pointy-headed intellectuals today, far too brainy for mainstream television. (There really is no equivalent public intellectual on contemporary TV, although the late Christopher Hitchens, who is interviewed in the film, came close.) That being said, their debates were not nearly as substantive as you might expect, partly by Vidal’s design. Buckley Jr. wanted the issues to be front and center, with the personal barbs as a kind of seasoning. Vidal wanted to make the whole thing personal—first by tacitly suggesting that Buckley Jr. might’ve been a homosexual himself (a rumor, most likely unfounded, that followed Buckley Jr. his whole life); later, by calling him a “crypto-Nazi”—a charge that caused Buckley Jr. to lose his famous cool.
Neville and Gordon keep things fleet and focused, showing us just enough of the 1968 political climate to put the whole thing in its proper context. The interviews, some archival (including many with Vidal himself), some recent (along with cultural critics like Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, there’s Buckley Jr.’s younger brother Reid) add enormous insight. The directors recognize Vidal as the puckish gadfly that he is, allowing us to enjoy him devilishly reveling in his own mischief. But, even if their own loyalties seem to run more toward Vidal, they hardly throw Buckley Jr. under the bus. For starters, it’s impossible to leave the theater without being impressed by the man’s per-eloquence; secondly, he becomes a nearly tragic figure when Vidal gets the best of him— is there anything more dismaying than seeing a man who values social decorum and self-control come completely undone? Once the debates were over—and a huge ratings juggernaut for ABC—Buckley Jr. and Vidal would continue to write articles about each other and generally obsess over each other until their respective deaths.
Indeed, theirs was the kind of hatred that could be almost be mistaken for a kind of love.
Best of Enemies is now playing at the Charles Theater.