Best of Enemies, (2015), Directed by Morgan Neville Robert Gordo, Magnolia Pictures —
One of the most consequential U.S. elections is only days away. Finally. The past eighteen months have seen constant bickering and insults from the two front-runners, “oppo research” and dirty tricks orchestrated by their campaign teams and an endless stream of threats, leaks, ugly invective and sexual allegations. Instead of a polite exchange of ideas and policies, non-stop “mud-slinging” has clogged cable news networks; as voting day draws near, only the candidates’ foibles and flaws are highlighted.
People around the world remain perplexed by America’s staggering expenditure in electing a president—a billion dollars, per race, per party. Here at home, the rift between Democratic and Republican adherents is so deep, so fraught with anger, that possible, post-election civic unrest is now being openly and seriously discussed. Still, anyone who thinks the current election is the most bizarre in American history has not yet seen “Best of Enemies”. PBS aired this fascinating documentary in October and it is definitely worth revisiting.
Initially released in theatres in 2015, “Best of Enemies” delves into the explosive summer of 1968—a flashpoint year in the turbulent 20th century, rife with assassinations, anti-war marches and rioting in the streets. Against that grim background, we witness moments from a notorious series of televised debates. Many of the political, cultural and social themes discussed five decades ago are still relevant today. But these smart conversations gradually devolved into a feud between the two featured “enemies” who were quite unlike any other public speakers, before or since.
In the 1960’s, TV’s “vast wasteland” basically consisted of three networks–NBC, CBS and ABC–along with a budding public television system and a few local stations in every city. Among the networks, ABC was always in third place, lacking the power, prestige and financial clout of its better-known, prime-time brothers. For the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968, however, ABC devised a cost-effective alternative to the wall-to-wall coverage in Miami and Chicago that CBS and NBC scheduled: it would present a series of ten debates, aired live, between two equivalent pundits–a conservative and a liberal.
The combatants on this televised battlefield were well-known to the masses; their extensive writings, arch public personas, opposite political positions and regular presence on talk shows made them both very famous. ABC’s choice for the conservative was obvious: William F. Buckley Jr., the erudite, wealthy, east coast leader of the growing right-wing movement–handsome, honey-voiced, harpsichord-playing and in possession of perhaps the richest vocabulary outside of the Oxford English Dictionary. After securing him, ABC gave Buckley the chance to choose his debate partner; he said, in effect, “anybody but Gore Vidal“. So, of course, the network booked Gore Vidal.
Writer of novels and essays, a witty conversationalist, Hollywood screenwriter, sometime resident of Italy, open homosexual and relative of Jackie Kennedy, Gore Vidal had just published “Myra Breckenridge“, a sensational, satirical best-seller about a transsexual. Publicity about the book and Vidal’s left-wing sensibilities provided the extra sparks that ABC wanted. Engaging the two noted opponents was a public relations dream come true. The New York Times review of “Best of Enemies” provides this succinct background of the two writers:
“Buckley and Vidal were remarkable characters, at once bona fide intellectuals, true-blue aristocrats and knowing caricatures of those very types. Each one had, earlier in the decade, run a losing campaign for elective office in New York State: Vidal earnestly sought a congressional seat in the Hudson Valley in 1960; Buckley staged a lively protest candidacy in the New York mayoral election of 1965. They were scions of powerful, privileged families, prep school graduates (Vidal never went to college), military veterans and tirelessly entrepreneurial men of letters happy to dabble in mass media when it suited their needs. They also genuinely and sincerely hated each other’s guts.”
“Best of Enemies” (Magnolia Pictures) was five years in the making; it took time and effort to search for old video tapes (and get the clearances to show them), interview surviving participants (alas, both Buckley and Vidal were recently deceased) and to obtain the funding needed to edit and “clean up” these pre-digital relics. Kudos to Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville who co-wrote and co-directed this paean to a style of punditry that achieved its pinnacle in these taped discussions. High marks to their team of co-workers who smoothly combined old elements and new interviews in this good-looking doc. Because the debates were broadcast in color–technology then relatively new and first used for convention coverage in 1968–viewers today will not experience the distance of forty-eight years that black and white films might have created.
The moderator of these debates, ABC’s respected news anchor Howard K. Smith, began each segment with a “current affairs” question about the Viet Nam war, Senator Barry Goldwater, unrest on college campuses or which political party was best able to deal with the era’s problems. After that, Smith and the viewing audience sat back and watched as the two charming but calculating performers went to work.
Buckley resembled a cobra, training his striking blue eyes on the news set’s crew or straight into the camera, holding an ever-present pen aloft and a clipboard on his lap, drawing out ornate sentences in his orotund voice–soothing in Miami but later seething in Chicago, when things got heated. Vidal was more like a cat, constantly watching Buckley, teasing him with clever retorts (some of which he’d rehearsed), speaking in mellifluous tones, nervously smiling, always on the alert for a possible pause in the oratory when he might pounce.
By mid-century standards, ABC’s pairing of these intellectuals began with polite, subdued conversations (although the ensuing vitriol and near-fisticuffs would all-too-soon become regular, unremarkable fare on daytime TV). 1968 was a year full of topics worth discussing: the expanding Vietnam war; the Tet Offensive; Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for office again; the demise of anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy with the nomination of Hubert Humphrey; increasing demands for “law and order”; the rise of Richard Nixon; poverty, the Cold War and race relations in America. The two opponents, with minimal interruption from the moderator, relished every minute in their battle of words. One of the documentary’s “talking heads”, former New York Times editor (and Buckley biographer) Sam Tanenhaus, calls Buckley “the great debater of his time” and Vidal “the great talker of his time”.
By the spirited ninth set-to, while thousands of protesters on the streets below the convention were rousted, beaten or arrested by over-zealous Chicago police and the National Guard, Buckley and Vidal were through playing around. The former called the latter “diseased”, “neurotic” and “feline”; the latter called the former “the Marie Antoinette of the right wing”. A discussion about an anti-war provocateur who was waving a Nazi flag was followed by comments from an agitated Buckley. Then this exchange:
Vidal: “The only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.”
Smith: “Let’s not call names.”
Buckley: “Now, listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered!”
Vidal: “Oh, Bill, you’re too extraordinary.”
Buckley finally lost his temper–something he forever regretted–and some of ABC’s ten million viewers were shocked to hear raw language on television. The network relished its higher profile, though, as well as improved ratings. Esquire Magazine subsequently invited Buckley and Vidal to write their impressions of the debate and each other. Their lengthy essays can be found in “Smiling Through The Apocalypse: Esquire’s History of the Sixties” and make for a rich reading experience. Buckley later sued both the magazine and Vidal–Esquire eventually settled–then Vidal counter-sued Buckley. The suits dragged on for years but both were eventually dropped.
“Best of Enemies” should be required viewing in political science and cultural history classes. It features two remarkable, highly educated writers–celebrated wits at the peak of their powers–in a brittle confrontation at a key crossroad in America’s past. William F. Buckley rarely discussed the contretemps but later admitted that “excessive bitchery got out of hand”. A more honest review was uttered by Gore Vidal, immediately post-debate, as the men’s microphones were being removed. “Well”, he whispered to Buckley, “I guess we gave them their money’s worth tonight”.