“The Best of Enemies,” an Oscar-worthy documentary on a handful of screens across America now but guaranteed to be a first-rate resource when it hits the Internet for many a moon to come, chronicles the 10 extraordinary, unscripted, live head-to-head TV throw-downs in the Summer of 1968 pitting two of the nation’s premiere intellectuals, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, against each other.
Aimed at spicing up ABC’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions that summer, the debates were a nationwide sensation because of how the sparks flew between these two men whose faces came within inches of each other and who genuinely hated each other. Not like the canned, insufferably boring exchanges between nominal adversaries swimming in the same big punchbowl of national politics and the major media these days, those exchanges in 1968 were raw, savage and produced, unexpected results, to say the least.
But as commendable as the Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon excellent and timely documentary is, the seminal importance of the Buckley-Vidal encounters (they were more encounters than debates) was missed in their presentation and in almost every review of the film to date.
The encounters represented an historical singularity, a single inflection point that tipped the national consciousness during that hot and intemperate August between the GOP conclave in Miami at the beginning of the month and the anti-war riots and police riot-filled Democratic one in Chicago at the end of the month.
First of all, they were not composed of equals, Buckley on the right and Vidal on the left. Buckley had behind him the full power of the nation’s entire military and industrial establishment, the scions prosecuting the Vietnam War who, as instinctively if not actually most Americans sensed were responsible for the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy just months earlier, and for that matter, before that, of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.
Vidal was a fitting adversary, but Buckley agreed to him because he thought he could eat him alive by his usual sophistic debating tactics that made watching his “Firing Line” TV show like watching fish being shot in a barrel.
Vidal was vulnerable in Buckley’s eyes because he was a semi-closeted gay man, intellectually talented but, so Buckley thought, no match for the kind of erudite stabs and cuts that Buckley’s superior mental and verbal rapier skills would bring into play.
Vidal, in my view one of the most under-appreciated figures in U.S. history, presented himself on the set with the eyes and body language of a lonely but brave and happy warrior, with really no one willing to back him up, a Gary Cooper in “High Noon”-ish type of figure.
This was no debate of equals, this was David versus Goliath if ever there was one.
Appreciating this makes what then happened so much more delightful and important, because Gore Vidal almost literally “tore Bill Buckley a new one.”
Vidal was relentless in taking the fight to his enemy, catching Buckley in contradictions by having researched and quoting from his works, and with highly-charged verbal assaults. Buckley was on the defensive but fought back with his legendary skills of repartee.
But then it got to the ninth encounter, on the eve of the final day of the Democratic convention in Chicago, on Aug. 28, as outside police were smashing anti-war demonstrator heads with billy clubs.
Vidal scored his coup de grace by calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” The close-up of Buckley’s contorted, enraged face at that moment, as he leaned toward Vidal, was like a nasty close-up of the Alien in one of those movies. He snarled, “Now you listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
That was it. Vidal sank back in his chair with a slight smile. He’d won. Such filthy language was never spoken on TV in that era. Buckley was exposed and crushed.
Millions of Americans attracted to the high-brow nature of this fight subsequently felt permitted to come out against the Vietnam War, generating new waves of mainstream activism that eventually sealed its fate.