One 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 .