It is often lamented that contemporary political culture is covered too much like sports and entertainment. “Who won the day?” is more or less the credo of Politico, a site that treats former hall monitors like anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist like LeBron James — or, say, Paul Thomas Anderson. The priority for Fox News is making good television, and what makes good TV has not one thing to do with crafting and enacting policy that has a concrete effect on American life (Fox’s opposite number, MSNBC, has watched its ratings slide for several years, and yet keeps programming failing shows hosted by earnest center-left wonks). What works on non-scripted programming is conflict in which one massive ego prevails over another. Any substantive point any pundit makes is irrelevant — it’s the elegance with which a bon mot is deployed, or the savagery of a verbal salvo, that counts.
For this state of affairs, we must point to the 10 debates broadcast by ABC in 1968 between public intellectuals Gore Vidal (on the left) and William F. Buckley Jr. (on the right). Those debates are considered by overeducated individuals who look down their noses at sports, as epochal as Ali vs Liston in 1964, and are thus recounted in “Best of Enemies,” a documentary directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville.
ABC’s news division lacked the gravitas and star power of NBC’s Huntley/Brinkley team and CBS’s Walter Cronkite at the time. So during its coverage of the Republican convention in Miami and the rather more eventful Democratic convention in Chicago, the network secured Buckley, the editor-in-chief of the National Review and thus a key figure in mid to late 20th century conservatism, and Vidal, a multifarious author whose most notorious work, the pre-sexual revolution trans romp “Myra Breckinridge” (which was adapted into a film directed by Michael Same and starred Raquel Welch) inspired pronounced disgust in Buckley, for a series of debates. The two were ostensibly to address the war in Vietnam, the counterculture, civil rights tumult, opposing ideas of the decline of the American ideal and whatever else one gasbagged about at the time, while being moderated by Howard Smith, a classic, hapless network stuffed shirt.
But what this doc makes clear is that Vidal and Buckley were less interested in advocating a position than they were in humiliating one another. The two hated each other in the specific manner you hate someone with whom you have a lot in common. They were born two months apart in 1925 and came of age when the affected, louche transatlantic accent they shared bespoke sophistication and when men “to the manor born” would sooner flay themselves with a rusty screwdriver then leave the house wearing a t-shirt and jeans. But Vidal was something of a class traitor: its possible that his far left convictions were animated by a selectively employed disdain for segments of his own ruling class (perhaps the segment that treated the gay Vidal the way straight rich guys treated gay rich guys: poorly) more than they were by his appreciation for any group he advocated for but had little proximity to. Whereas the Catholic Buckley’s background was not as patrician: it seems that his visceral disgust with Vidal (a relative of Jackie Kennedy and Al Gore) originated from an anger at the prospect of a dissident One Percenter advocating for income redistribution, pansexuality and for the social fabric as it stood to be torn apart. Sam Tannenhaus, one of the New York Times‘ longtime token conservatives and a Buckley biographer, says in the doc that they were really arguing about who was the better person.
Although the doc doesn’t come right out and say it, clearly Vidal was the victor of the debates… or rather, Buckley didn’t win, simply because a debater must above all exercise self-control. In the one moment in the debates that lives in infamy, Vidal casually calls Buckley a “crypto nazi,” and Buckley loses his fucking shit: “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered!” Whatever one thinks of onetime “heir to Vidal” Christopher Hitchens‘ booze sozzled defense of the invasion of Iraq, it is gratifying to see him hale and hearty (and not ravaged by cancer as he was in his final years), describing the “rictus of loathing” that possesses Buckley at that time. Vidal does not lose his cool for an instant, presenting a self-satisfied grin.
Apart from that moment, the rest of the debates seem to be small potatoes, particularly given the riots roiling outside the Chicago studio in which the two sparred, much less an entire Southeastern Asian country and its inhabitants laid waste so that a now obscure point might be made. These were two privileged men who, despite the sincerity of their views as to the proper role for the United States internationally and domestically and the proper way for individuals to live, had nothing personal at stake in the great events of 1968. It was merely two guys who viscerally disliked each other, for whom these debates were hugely important personally and who fucked with each other for decades afterwards: Vidal’s editor and confidant Matt Tyrnauer says that in recent years he watched tapes of the debates often with a Norma Desmond-esque Vidal, whereas Buckley was uncharacteristically caught flat-footed and silent when Ted Koppel surprised him with footage on a show in the 2000s. And the two claimed to have details about each other’s alleged sexual proclivities that they perpetually threatened to deploy.
“Best of Enemies” succeeds on utilitarian terms: it does what it’s supposed to. Nearly every living individual with insight on the two men and their legacy of the debates is interviewed (Christopher Buckley, the author of “Thank You for Smoking” and a more temperamentally mild but much funnier writer than his father, does not appear), it includes every bit of archival footage realistic for a ninety minute running time (I particularly enjoyed shots of the luxuriantly man-boobed Buckley and Ronald Reagan gamboling in the surf together), and it admirably does not hammer its point about these debates influencing the course of almost 50 years of political discourse, leaving a reference to Fox News shoutdowns to the doc’s final moments.
Oddly, the constellation of public intellectuals holding forth in the doc about their forebears in punditry Vidal and Buckley — Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Eric Alterman, among others — were most prominent during the Iraq War and thus make it occasionally seem as if the interviews were conducted in the mid 2000s, during which Buckley (d. 2008) and Vidal (d. 2012) were still around. It’s almost as if this film was made at that time and sat on a shelf for a decade. So…what does Edward Snowden, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Jezebel cohort or another figure of more recent vintage make of the debates or those paleo-pundits? Do they care? Is “Best of Enemies” an elegy for the age of the paleo-pundit? After all, cable news and its perpetual parade of the interest-conflicted commentariat is the province of your batshit, chain-email forwarding uncle, and maybe the 21st century Vidal/Buckley will emerge in next five years, but presently is too busy on Tumblr, Vine or some subreddit or other to care about some old dead rich guys. [B+]