Best of Enemies

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Jonathan Richards

BEST OF ENEMIES, documentary, not rated, 3.5 chiles

In 1968, with the war in Viet­nam heat­ing up and the protest move­ment gath­er­ing steam, the Re­pub­li­can and the Demo­cratic par­ties held their qua­dren­nial con­ven­tions to select their pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees. With the coun­try in tur­moil, the ac­tion promised to be lively, and the out­comes were far from pre­or­dained. The net­works sched­uled gavel-to-gavel cov­er­age.

Two of them, that is. In those days, there were three ma­jor net­works, but ABC lagged a dis­tant third be­hind CBS and NBC, and didn’t have the lux­ury of its heavy­weight sis­ters to forego its reg­u­lar com­mer­cial pro­gram­ming for whole evenings of pol­i­tics. ABC needed some­thing spec­tac­u­lar to bridge the pres­tige gap. What it came up with made tele­vi­sion his­tory.

Gore Vi­dal was a pro­gres­sive who had pub­lished sev­eral scan­dalous nov­els. Wil­liam F. Buckley Jr. was the right-wing founder of the Na­tional

Re­view mag­a­zine and host of the TV talk show Fir­ing Line. ABC ap­proached Buckley for a se­ries of de­bates that would air af­ter the evening news dur­ing the two con­ven­tions. Who would he like to square off against? Any­one, he said, ex­cept a Com­mu­nist or Gore Vi­dal. So who you gonna call?

Vi­dal and Buckley were op­po­site sides of a coin that seemed minted from the East Coast elite, though nei­ther came from a typ­i­cal pa­tri­cian back­ground. By the time they faced off as a part of ABC’s con­ven­tion cov­er­age, they were al­ready po­lar-op­po­site cul­tural icons, and abid­ing enemies.

Di­rec­tors Robert Gor­don and Mor­gan Neville have culled the se­ries of 10 de­bates in which Buckley and Vi­dal en­gaged, and put to­gether a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of a time when in­tel­li­gence was ad­mired in the na­tional dis­course.

The film uses a few talk­ing heads, in­clud­ing Buckley’s brother James, Christo­pher Hitchens, and var­i­ous bi­og­ra­phers, and pas­sages from Vi­dal’s and Buckley’s writ­ings are voiced by John Lith­gow and Kelsey Gram­mer, re­spec­tively. But it is the ver­bal blood­let­ting from the two prin­ci­pals that is the film’s main event. Mod­er­ated by ABC’s courtly an­chor­man Howard K. Smith, they cir­cle and jab, and smile, and smile. The pol­i­tics of the con­ven­tions are all but for­got­ten as they probe each other’s weak­nesses and pub­lic po­si­tions, each look­ing to de­stroy the other, as the ha­tred sim­mers and the ten­sion builds. (Vi­dal, in­ci­den­tally, en­gaged in another fa­mous on-air dustup a few years later, with Nor­man Mailer on The Dick Cavett Show.)

The movie’s cli­max comes in de­bate num­ber nine, at the apoc­a­lyp­tic Demo­cratic Con­ven­tion in Chicago. Vi­dal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley, eyes bulging and pointed tongue dart­ing be­tween bowed lips, snarled, “Now lis­ten, you queer, stop call­ing me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you . . . and you’ll stay plas­tered!” It was a shock­ing slur, and an awk­wardly phrased threat, and it sent the man who de­liv­ered it down to de­feat. The film shows that the out­burst haunted Buckley for the rest of his life.

Vi­dal, too, seemed haunted by the event. In the film, a young bi­og­ra­pher re­calls spend­ing evenings with Vi­dal watch­ing ki­nescopes of the de­bate, re­mind­ing him of Glo­ria Swan­son in Sun­set Boule­vard.

Pa­tri­cian poses: Gore Vi­dal and Wil­liam F. Buckley

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