The year 1968 was a tumultuous one for the US. The war in Vietnam was a mess, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and there were the chaotic Republican and Democratic conventions to choose presidential candidates. Taking advantage of this pivotal time, the ABC television network decided to broadcast eight debates between William Buckley and Gore Vidal.
Buckley was a conservative writer and the founding editor of National Review. Vidal was a novelist and screenwriter whose scandalous, campy novel Myra Breckinridge, about a transsexual who anally rapes a man with a dildo, had recently become a bestseller. He was a progressive liberal whose politics were at odds with those of his opponent.
Viewers may have been expecting a lofty series of debates between two public intellectuals but what they got instead was heated scraps between two men who could barely disguise their contempt for each other. Vidal, with a patrician voice and pompous attitude, set out to needle Buckley in an attempt to make him lose his temper. When Vidal called him a crypto-Nazi, a furious Buckley snapped back, calling him a ‘‘queer’’. Vidal’s reaction was priceless. He retreated into almost a Zen calmness, allowing himself only a sly smile of victory. He had set out to break Buckley and had succeeded.
At that moment all pretence at civil discourse was gone and the debates degenerated into name-calling and insults. In other words, for the huge audience of 10 million viewers, this was riveting and unforgettable television (watching these debates on YouTube is a hoot). Vidal may have been well-known before, but now he was famous. Having sought fame since he his youth, he would go on to become one of the most famous American authors of his time.
Biographer and novelist Jay Parini has written the first biography of Vidal since his death in 2012 aged 86. Parini was a longstanding friend of Vidal and so is in a good position to help us understand the man. Unfortunately his decision to open each chapter with a personal vignette doesn’t inspire confidence. His encounters with the ‘‘Maestro’’ are occasions where Vidal uses him as a gofer, a potential biographer and rapt listener who is not allowed to interrupt. Parini’s friendship with the novelist Joyce Carol Oates means he omits Vidal’s notorious put-down: ‘‘Joyce Carol Oates, the three most dispiriting words in the English language.’’ Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal By Jay Parini Hachette, 465pp, $55 (HB)
Gore Vidal in 1996 and, right, his 1960s sparring partner William F. Buckley Jr