Best of Enemies
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