Showing posts with label William F.Buckley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William F.Buckley. Show all posts

Monday, September 7, 2015

Best of Enemies

Image result for gore vidal william buckleyOne of the great, yes great things about watching television in the Sixties was the chance to view the spectacle of our finest writers verbally slugging it out on talk shows, smart and savvy men in matters of politics, literature and art who, confronting another who is just as smart and with equal measures of self regard, act like petulant children who are an hour beyond their scheduled bedtime. It was an area where our perceptions of what was occurring in the world beyond our livings rooms and kitchens were framed by a host of local newspapers, the New York Times being the only one we might consider a "national" publication, and three major television networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. There were other outlets for contrary opinions, literary journals, alternative political magazines and a wide spread of local newspapers, but in a pre-internet age, there were few platforms in which ambitious intellectuals had to command the spotlight and keep it on them; the personalities themselves had to be large.  

 It was a different kind of fireworks,, with the considerable brain power in the TV studio surging for the sake of spite, payback, revenge against slights and dismissals, real or imagined. The new documentary "Best of Enemies" is a close look at one of the centrally extended spats of the period,a fascinating backward glimpse at a heated, passionate feud between William F. Buckley, conservative gadfly writer and editor of the National Review, and novelist-essayist Gore Vidal, a formidable wit and left-leaning contrarian. Both writers, representing the political right and left, were hired by a ratings-starved ABC News for a series of ten debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and the film, augmenting little scene footage from the testy debates with remarks from Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, historian Todd Gitlin, is a character study of two men who, although representing and, to an extent, conflicting embodying worldviews, shared more than either was ever likely to admit. Buckley and Vidal detested one another, as the film gives a swift but vivid account of their past encounters and impressions of one another; Buckley considered Vidal a harbinger of an amoral, godless, chaotic world that threatened the foundations of civilization, with Vidal in turn regarding Buckley as a pampered apologist for and defender of rich elites who used any means they required to increase their wealth and power. That both men had manners, speech patterns and patrician affectations that would suggest the two of them should have shared more common ground is the larger irony. 

But at heart was the concern as to who should lead America. Gitlin says at one point that Buckley that didn't believe in democracy but should be ruled by the Elite ruling class. However aristocratic he might have seemed, Vidal spoke in favor of direct democratic processes, empowering the disenfranchised with a more political will, and for riding the political system of the undue influence of corporations. It was a mess if nothing else, but it was, so the cliche has it, "good television". This was not a debate, it was blood sport. At stake, both would perversely agree on, was the fate of the United States, Buckley viewing as descending into chaos should the left achieve their agenda of equal rights and non interventionist foreign policies, and Vidal with the idea that the American Empire, much like the Roman Empire and other empires before it, would collapse from overextension . The debates were lively, energetic, two men bent not on discussing party policies on social issues but rather determined to expose the other as a fraud, charlatan, a great social menace. Anyone familiar with the debates, meaning anyone around my age of 60 something, knows what this builds up to, Vidal in the 9th debate goading Buckley by calling him a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley, his calm destroyed and looking at Vidal with unmistakable contempt, says the fateful rejoinder, calling him "queer" and that he would sock him "in the god damned face" if Vidal made the Nazi comparison again. It was judged by media writers at the time that Vidal had won the debates by the simple measure of keeping his cool. 

In the aftermath, both writers wrote their feelings about the exchanges in successive issues of Esquire, first Buckley and then Vidal, the result of which was a libel suit against Vidal when he implied, with the forceful insinuation that Buckley was a closeted gay man. In all , the film ends on a melancholy note, suggesting that neither write quite recovered from the confrontations. In later footage of both of them, they are shown as tired, wizened, melancholic, looking at the world that would follow their respective measures of advice closely or faithfully enough. It is fitting, perhaps, as we see here two of the smartest American writers at the time giving it their all in an effort to change the country and make it better according to their radical prescriptions, on to see the long view at last that what made them anxious in their youth still exists and that they haven't the energy to enter the fray .

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William F.Buckley, RIP

I am loathed to say anything nice about conservative commentators, at least the mangy generation that arose with the death of the Fairness Doctrine and who have, in turn, been anything but fair in their remarks regarding Democrats or anyone else who isn't in lockstep with RNC or Religious Right talking points. This odious crew, spearheaded by the absurd existence of Rush Limbaugh and followed, in various degrees of venomous deceit, hate mongering and the subjugation of honesty, ethics, and principles in favor of fat book contracts, political wonkery on cable television, and the well-rewarded obligation to be apologists for an unjustified war that has put America in increased peril and made our lot in the world community that much more difficult, is a sleazy bunch of propagandists. We speak of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, the clustered fools at the Weekly Standard. Not their concern are the virtues of debate, tolerance, or truth. Political discussion in this country has gotten coarser, dumber, louder, meaner in the last twenty years, and the scales have been tipped toward what we call wingnuts in terms of who was allowed to have the loudest megaphone. The networks were bullied and badgered to have more conservative pundits on their programs than those who would be off the extreme message or even the least bit left of center. As Eric Alterman asked in the title of his fine book, we ask again, "What Liberal Media"?All that said, I am saddened that conservative gadfly and National Review founder William F.Buckley has passed away at the age of 82. I've always been a liberal Democrat and have found myself on the other side of issues with the late Buckley, but I watched his show Firing Line each week and admired the man for his intellect, his wit, and his dedication to keeping his program a civil forum where actual differences in political philosophy and contrasting views on public policy could be discussed. The difference between William F.Buckley and the current spoiled crop of right-wing hacks is that Mr.Buckley was a true intellectual who listened to his guests and posed hard questions to them respectively, artfully. It was part of Mr.Buckley's style that he would skewer his opponents with their own words, or catch them in contradictions they couldn't readily respond to, but the method with which he stood his ground and defended his conservative faith was masterful, brilliant, admirably civil. It's worth noting that Buckley maintained good relations with many liberals and progressives, including long-standing friendships with John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr . He had a shrewd wit, and I always enjoyed the story that when a new collection of his essays was published, he mailed off a host of free, autographed copies to a good number of his literary friends. As Buckley told it, he didn't sign Norman Mailer's copy on the title page, as is custom, but rather in the book's index. There, written in the margins next to Mailer's name, Buckley had written "Hello Norman! Regards, William F. Buckley."