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When Political Punditry Was Born

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When Political Punditry Was Born

The Buckley-Vidal debates changed television . . . for the worse. September 25, 2015
William F. Buckley (left) menaces Gore Vidal

For some admirers of William F. Buckley Jr., his suggestion to Gore Vidal that he “stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered” was one of his finest moments. That the National Review founder issued his threat before 10 million people on network television only enhanced his legend. Yet for Buckley, the exchange was one of the few moments in his eventful life that he cared not to discuss and would have just as soon forgotten. Best of Enemies, Robert Morgan and Morgan Neville’s new documentary about the ABC-sponsored Buckley-Vidal “debates” at the 1968 national conventions, offers a surprisingly revealing window on the exchange. The stylish film from Magnolia Pictures brings to life both the excitement of the era and its subjects’ formidable and opposing personalities. Best of Enemies shouldn’t be missed by anyone interested in political or media history.

The filmmakers mined reels of old news footage and conducted fresh interviews with allies, opponents, and observers of Buckley and Vidal. They also enlist actors Kelsey Grammer (Buckley) and John Lithgow (Vidal) to read essays written for Esquire soon after the debates. That Vidal’s essay can no longer be published because of a libel suit—and in fact resulted in the pulping of an Esquire anthology just a decade ago—speaks to the long trail of animosity that the confrontation created. The exchange even prompted a correction to Vidal’s obituary.

In his book The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling wrote of the “bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” It might be said that the story of Best of Enemies centers on a televised crossroads where news and “bitchery” meet (in Buckley’s words). Without Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley, ABC entered the 1968 convention season a distant third in the network ratings. “They would have been fourth,” the former NBC News president Richard Wald explains in the film, “but there were only three.” The network indeed suffered an inauspicious start to convention season. Reporting from the Republican convention in Miami, reporter Sam Donaldson stumbled over his lines as the camera zoomed in on a pair of elderly beachcombers. In the moments before broadcast, the ABC set collapsed inside the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Abandoning the “gavel to gavel” coverage of the leading networks, ABC decided to draw on the commenting class as a long-shot play for ratings. By bringing Buckley and Vidal together, the network inadvertently inaugurated the modern era of television punditry. In his Esquire essay, Buckley recounts that in the fall of 1967, the network approached him with the idea for a debate. ABC asked who else should appear with him. Buckley suggested Arthur Schlesinger, Kenneth Galbraith, or Norman Mailer: “I wouldn’t refuse to appear alongside any non-Communist, I said—as a matter of principle; but I didn’t want to appear opposite Gore Vidal . . . Vidal’s political philosophy is, I discovered fairly early in our association, elusive.”

Vidal, for his part, had no such reservations. Believing that one should never turn down “sex and appearing on television,” Vidal entered the debates not to criticize Republican policy but to attack Buckley personally. A best-selling author and blueblood avatar of the rising, libidinous New Left, Vidal saw himself as a fiddler for America’s burning empire. His scandalous 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge featured a transsexual protagonist who rapes men with a strap-on dildo. The plotline may not have been far from Vidal’s mind as he prepared for Buckley, writing out one-liner attacks and testing them on the ABC crew. He also suspected that Buckley would be ill-prepared for the assault, which he was. Buckley was a champion debater, but Vidal was a gutter fighter. Buckley was fresh off a sailing cruise and prepared only to discuss the Republican platform. When the bell rang, Vidal pushed him on onto his heels. Buckley then snapped back onto his toes. Vidal’s sparring style was to “let the guy lean forward so he falls over,” observes the writer James Wolcott. It’s telling that Vidal claimed a lineage going back to Aaron Burr, the subject of one of his historical novels, even if the connection was only through his step-father.

When ABC brought its debate show from Miami to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, the combatants found themselves on more equal footing. As the intensity of the antiwar protests grew, and Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago police fought back with tear gas that wafted through the convention hall, the tone of Buckley and Vidal’s searing exchanges escalated. Anchor Howard K. Smith tried to keep the peace:

Vidal: Shut up a minute . . . As far as I am concerned, the only crypto Nazi I can think of is yourself, failing that, I would only say that we can’t have . . .

Smith: Now let’s not call names.

Buckley: Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.

Smith: Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Let’s not call names.

Buckley: Let Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography and stop making allusions of Naziism. I was in the infantry in the last war.

Vidal: You were not in the infantry; as a matter of fact you didn’t fight in the war.

As the network cut away, Buckley recalls, “My pulse was racing, and my fingers trembled as wave after wave of indignation swept over me—and then suddenly, about to deposit the earphones on the table stand, I stopped, frozen. Vidal, arranging his own set, was whispering to me. ‘Well!’ he said, smiling. ‘I guess we gave them their money’s worth tonight!’” Buckley regretted losing his temper, and returning one slur (“Nazi”) with another (“queer”). He had become an “equal of Vidal in intemperance . . . . Obviously my response was the wrong one if it is always wrong to lose one’s temper, as I was disposed (‘the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God’) to believe that it was.”

Vidal, in contrast, relished the snap. “In full view of ten million people,” Vidal wrote in his own follow-up essay for Esquire, which can no longer be reproduced in full, “the little door in William F. Buckley Jr’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions, of others, to get a good look at. I think those few seconds of madness, to use his word, were well worth a great deal of patient effort on my part.” While Buckley apologized to Vidal, in print Vidal compounded his invective at Buckley with slurs that made those initial words seem pale in comparison. “All in all, I was pleased with what had happened,” he concluded.

The exchange reverberated through the media landscape over subsequent decades. The omniscient voice of nightly television news fractured into a 24-hour cycle of punditry. The shift played right into Vidal’s gonzo and ad hominem style. For Buckley, the evolution of the form was a mixed blessing. The opening of television provided an opportunity for conservatives but also coarsened the discussion, as the survival of ideas was tested in a new televised circus. Through his own program, Firing Line, which ran from 1966 to 1999, Buckley worked against that spectacle, giving space to a wide range of guests and opinions, while airing ideas that (as the documentary rightly credits) paved the way for Ronald Reagan and the conservative revolution.

The Buckley-Vidal debates were, in contrast, a low point—from which television proved it could go even lower. “The shameful pleasure of watching them match wits,” Commentary magazine editorialized at the time, “had less to do with a search for political enlightenment than with such archaic or illegal entertainments as cockfighting, duels to the death, and fliting. The effect was the opposite of edifying.” Or, as Buckley himself reflected:

At this point my mind moved to Gore Vidal, and the dismal events of the Summer of 1968, when he and I confronted each other a dozen times on network television, leading to an emotional explosion which, it is said, rocked television. Certainly it rocked me, and I am impelled to write about it; to discover its general implications, if any; to meditate on some of its personal implications, which are undeniable and profound; to probe the question whether what was said—under the circumstances in which it was said—has any meaning at all beyond that which is most generally ascribed to it, namely: Excessive bitchery can get out of hand.

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