Documentary Revisits The 'Dazzling' Polemics Of The Buckley-Vidal Debates

Aug 18, 2015

After the Republicans held their lively first debate, you heard people saying what they always say nowadays — that our media-driven political discourse has become shallow and petty, even clownish. Hearing this, an innocent young person might believe that, not so long ago, America was a latter-day Athens in which political arguments were magnificent in their purity and eloquence.

For a useful antidote to this idea, I recommend Best of Enemies, a new documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It chronicles what happened when ABC News, running a poor third in the ratings, decided to amp up coverage of the 1968 political conventions by staging a series of debates between two of America's most famous, entertaining and self-satisfied intellectuals. On the right was William F. Buckley, the devoutly Catholic editor and TV host who's been called the St. Paul of modern conservatism; his opponent was the novelist, essayist and playwright Gore Vidal, the Cicero of the patrician left, who owned a villa in Italy.

These two mandarins didn't merely have conflicting politics and morality. They loathed one another viscerally: For each, it felt like confronting his evil twin. For what they shared, beyond an obvious sense of entitlement, was a dazzling gift for polemic. Speaking with aristocratic drawls we no longer hear on the air, both wielded language like natural-born killers — Buckley's sinuous rhetoric squeezing you tight like a python, Vidal striking quick and hard like a rattlesnake.

From the start, they didn't so much debate issues as try to take the other guy down. Vidal attacked with rehearsed ad libs, while the lizard-tongued Buckley spoke of Vidal's novel Myra Breckinridge as if it were a tissue infected with TB.

Their snippiness exploded in the ninth debate when Chicago police attacked anti-war demonstrators. Vidal baited Buckley by calling him a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley replied by calling him a "queer."

Such a messy exchange would be memorable even today. With it, Vidal won their real debate, not over issues, but over which man could preserve the exquisite poise that was his trademark. By getting Buckley to curse, name-call and threaten violence, the smirking Vidal had goaded his counterculture-hating foe into letting it all hang out.

That moment is the only reason anyone remembers these debates. But not content to see this flare-up as an amusing historical footnote, Gordon and Neville try to pump the debates up into grander significance, suggesting they set the template for the bickering free-for-all that is the norm in today's political coverage.

Now, it's certainly true that the Vidal-Buckley crossfire did anticipate the future of political discussion on television, not least by getting two brilliant men to behave cartoonishly. Yet what we see now is the reductio ad absurdum of that. After all, Vidal and Buckley were learned, lavishly articulate men with carefully developed worldviews. That's not something you'd say of the folks blasting their opinions on ABC, MSNBC or Fox.

Buckley famously wrote, "A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling, 'Stop!' " But it doesn't stop, which casts these debates in a different light. Forty-seven years on, it's clear that Buckley's conservatism won the political battle — his free-market, anti-government ideas now dominate. Culturally, though, Vidal's values won — not least his libertarian, label-free ideas of sexuality. One imagines Buckley blanching at the right to gay marriage or at the triumph of hip-hop.

So who leaves the greater legacy? At the moment, the nod goes to Buckley, who led a movement that demonstrably changed how America thinks and organizes itself, even if it's hard to imagine any of his writings lasting as more than mere documents. In contrast, Vidal's influence on American life was minor, yet he was a vastly more talented writer, whose novels about our past, like Burr and Lincoln, may give him an enduring fame that will outlast Buckley's.

In the grand historical sweep, the Vidal-Buckley encounter's true meaning isn't really political. Rather, it marked the end of the days when literary figures and public intellectuals still had prestige. Days when writers like Vidal, Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and James Baldwin — all men, you'll notice — could actually be regular guests on the Tonight Show. Can you imagine Jimmy Fallon or Megyn Kelly even booking Don DeLillo or Hilary Mantel, let alone caring what they think? I sure can't, although I have high hopes for Stephen Colbert.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the late 1960s, few writers were better known than William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. Buckley was the founder and editor of the conservative magazine, National Review, and had his own television show, "Firing Line," on public television. Vidal was, by then, known for his play-turned-movie, "The Best Man," his historical novel, "Julian," and his best-selling satire, "Myra Breckinridge." A new movie, "Best of Enemies," by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, tells the story of the eruption that happened when these two provocative men were put on television to argue during the 1968 political conventions. Our critic at large, John Powers, says it gets you thinking about changes in American politics, culture and political debate.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: After the Republicans held their lively first debate, you heard people saying what they always say nowadays, that our media-driven political discourse has become shallow and petty, even clownish. Hearing this, an innocent young person might believe that not so long ago America was a latter-day Athens in which political arguments were magnificent in their purity and eloquence. For a useful antidote to this idea, I recommend "Best Of Enemies," a new documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It chronicles what happened when ABC News - running a poor third in the ratings - decided to amp up coverage of the 1968 political conventions by staging a series of debates between two of America's most famous, entertaining and self-satisfied intellectuals. On the right was William F. Buckley, the devoutly Catholic editor and TV host who's been called the St. Paul of modern conservatism. His opponent was the novelist, essayist and play-write, Gore Vidal, the Cicero of the patrician left, who owned a villa in Italy. These two mandarins didn't merely have conflicting politics and morality, they loathed one another viscerally. For each, it felt like confronting his evil twin. For what they shared beyond an obvious sense of entitlement was a dazzling gift for polemic, speaking with aristocratic drawls we no longer hear on the air. Both wielded language like natural-born killers, Buckley's sinuous rhetoric squeezing you tight like a python, Vidal striking quick and hard like a rattlesnake.

From the start, they didn't so much debate issues as try to take the other guy down. Vidal attacked with rehearsed ad-libs, while the lizard-tongued Buckley spoke of Vidal's novel, "Myra Breckinridge," as if it were a tissue infected with TB. Their snippiness finally exploded in the ninth debate, when Chicago police attacked anti-war demonstrators. Vidal baited Buckley by calling him a crypto-Nazi, and Buckley replied by calling him a queer. It all begins with a question from moderator Howard K. Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD K. SMITH: Mr. Vidal, wasn't it a provocative act to try to raise the Viet Cong flag in the park in the film we just saw? Wouldn't that invite - raising a Nazi flag in World War II would've had similar consequences.

GORE VIDAL: People in the United States happen to believe that the United States' policy is wrong in Vietnam, and the Viet Cong are correct in wanting to organize their country in their own way politically. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad, but I assume that the point of the American democracy...

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: And some people were pro-Nazi.

VIDAL: ...Is you can express any point of view you want.

BUCKLEY: And some people were pro-Nazi.

VIDAL: Shut up a minute.

BUCKLEY: No, I won't. Some people were pro-Nazi, and the answer is that they were well-treated by people who ostracized them, and I'm for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don't care...

VIDAL: As far as I'm concerned, the only sort of pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that, I'll only say that we can't have the...

SMITH: Let's not call names.

BUCKLEY: Now, listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi...

SMITH: Let's stop calling names.

BUCKLEY: ...Or I'll sock you in your [expletive] face and you'll stay plastered.

POWERS: Such a messy exchange would be memorable even today. With it, Vidal won the real debate - not over issues, but over which man could preserve the exquisite poise that was his trademark. By getting Buckley to curse, name call and threaten violence, the smirking Vidal had goaded his counterculture-hitting foe into letting it all hang out. That moment is the only reason anyone remembers these debates. But not content to see this flare-up as an amusing historical footnote, Gordon and Neville try to pump the debates up into grander significance, suggesting they set the template for the bickering free-for-all that is the norm in today's political coverage.

Now, it's certainly true that the Vidal-Buckley crossfire did anticipate the future of political discussion on television, not least by getting two brilliant men to behave cartoonishly, yet what we see now is the reductio ad absurdum of that. After all, Vidal and Buckley were learned, lavishly-articulate men with carefully developed world views. That's not something you'd say of the folks blasting their opinions on ABC, Fox or MSNBC. Buckley famously wrote, a conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history, yelling, stop.

But it doesn't stop, which casts these debates in a different light. Forty-seven years on, it's clear that Buckley's conservatism won the political battle. His free-market, antigovernment ideas now dominate. Culturally, though, Vidal's values won, not least his libertarian, label-free ideas of sexuality. One imagines Buckley blanching at the right to gay marriage or at the triumph of hip-hop. So who leaves the greater legacy? At the moment, the nod goes to Buckley, who led a movement that demonstrably changed how America thinks and organizes itself, even if it's hard to imagine any of his writings lasting as more than mere documents. In contrast, Vidal's influence on American life was minor, yet he was a vastly more talented writer, whose novels about our past, like "Burr" and "Lincoln," may give him an enduring fame that will outlast Buckley's. In the grand historical sweep, the Vidal-Buckley encounter's true meaning isn't really political. Rather, it marked the end of the days when literary figures and public intellectuals still had prestige, days when writers like Vidal, Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and James Baldwin - all men, you'll notice - could actually be regular guests on "The Tonight Show." Can you imagine Jimmy Fallon or Megyn Kelly even booking Don DeLillo or Hilary Mantel, let alone caring what they think? I sure can't, although I have high hopes for Stephen Colbert.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by the Maria Schneider Orchestra. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.