Best of Enemies. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. Released in July 2015
Stercoraceous. The silky, serpentine sibilance of the word, its talismanic warrant of intellectual superiority. I loved it but never found the right moment to put it to work. Sadly, it is the one thing that I remember clearly from William F. Buckley Jr’s nationally syndicated newspaper column “On the Right”. Other people read Buckley’s columns for the politics; I read them to increase my vocabulary. Every one of them sent me scurrying to my dictionary.
Buckley, who died in 2008, was a patrician Wunderkind who burst onto the national stage with his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, which decried a godless Ivy League education. In 1955 he founded the National Review, the magazine which galvanised American conservatism and turned it into the movement which sent Ronald Reagan to the White House.
Buckley’s ostentatious and effortless eloquence also characterised his bête noir on the left, Gore Vidal. A child of the Eastern establishment, Vidal published the first of his many novels at 19 and went on to become a leading public intellectual, notorious for his blistering wit and open homosexuality.
In 1968, a year of national turmoil over Vietnam, campus unrest, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the biggest media events of the year would be the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. At the time, the ABC television network had dismal ratings and a meagre budget. But one of its executives had an inspired thought: Buckley and Vidal would comment on the events of the convention.
This was political commentary as a ringside circus. As failed politicians and successful ideologues, both men were well qualified for the job, but they were also eccentrics. Buckley had a patrician drawl, and displayed a toothy grin as he skewered his debating partners. Vidal had the looks of a male model and was impeccably groomed and unfailingly polite. But behind his condescending smirk was the heart of a pitiless assassin. There was going to be more heat than light at this circus.
This is the background to Best of Enemies, a highly entertaining documentary about the impact of the debate on American politics and media, with an all-star cast of latter-day pundits, including Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan.
It was a significant moment. A chasm had opened up in American culture which endures to this day. On the conservative side with Buckley were those who believed that American greatness rested on a Judaeo-Christian foundation, that Communism was evil, that governments should leave citizens to work out their own destiny. On the liberal side with Vidal were those who believed that big government was transformative, that patriotism was a sham, and that the most fundamental liberation was sexual liberation.
The two men so disliked each other that they could barely make eye contact during their time on air. Buckley thought that Vidal was diabolical: a morally degenerate pornographer whose politics would doom the United States to totalitarian leftism. Vidal wanted to expose Buckley as a racist, anti-Semitic plutocrat whose magazine was promoting a warmongering American imperium.
The evenings were electric with loathing. As the grainy footage shows, the nightly commentary was not a debate about ideas. It quickly degenerated into intellectual cage-fighting. ABC’s ratings soared.
The battle reached its climax on the ninth of the ten nights of commentary. With Chicago police outside massed like an occupying army, baton charges into demonstrators and tear gas blowing through the streets, in the studio the atmosphere was tense. Gore said that America was drifting towards Fascism; Buckley defended its essential decency.
Then Gore struck. He called Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi". Buckley snapped. "Now listen, you queer," he said, "stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered."
Vidal had won. He had punctured Buckley’s Olympian nonchalance. It was a moment of humiliation for Buckley which would -- according to the documentary – haunt him for the rest of his life.
The debate never quite finished. The next year Buckley wrote a long essay for Esquire magazine about Vidal and Vidal responded with his own essay. He luxuriated in his triumph:
“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.”
They sued each other for libel. The case was settled out of court after three years of wrangling.
Best of Enemies contends that the 1968 debate turned serious political debate on television into slugfests between gorillas wearing pundit suits. Each declares that the other is a malignant force bent on destroying America. Civility is weakness; compromise is treason. The personalities become the politics. Buckley and Vidal may have been perceptive intellectuals and superb rhetoricians but their legacy debased American television as a way of debating about politics. From then on, the networks focused on personalities rather than issues.
But there is another lesson to be drawn from this compelling documentary. It must have been the first time that homosexuality was presented as something normal, healthy, even superior, on American television. Vidal was brazenly open about his sexuality and promoted a theory of pansexualism in his novels. Myra Breckinridge – which was published just before the debates -- was an obscene satire on transexualism and perversion in Hollywood. (Brief clips from the subsequent movie are the most distasteful part of the documentary.)
Best of Enemies suggests that there was a sexual subtext to the clash between the apostle of homosexuality and the apostle of the Christian right. There is something to this. Buckley’s aversion to homosexuality is a centrepiece of Vidal’s essay in Esquire. Vidal also incorporated a thinly-disguised Buckley into his 1973 novel Burr: William de la Touche Clancey, a Tory, a Catholic with five children, and a rapacious sodomite. Whatever else you might say about Gore Vidal, he was a good hater and he used his formidable skills to lacerate and ridiculte those who refused to countenance his views on sex.
In this respect, the debate was a harbinger of the contemporary war over same-sex marriage: the same rhetoric of insolence and gotcha, the same inability to grapple with issues of substance, the same ranting and name-calling. Finding an escape hatch from this stercoraceous* reek is one of the great challenges of contemporary media.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet, from where this article is adapted with permission.
* consisting or resembling feces or dung.