It may be difficult to recall (or imagine) a time when an uncivil war of words between politically disparate intellectuals was sufficiently novel to generate massive media coverage and score impressive Nielsen numbers. It is very much to the credit of co-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon that their “Best of Enemies,” a thoroughly engrossing and surprisingly entertaining documentary about the notorious 1968 televised clash between conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal gadfly Gore Vidal, is both fascinating as a glimpse at the not so distant past, and provocative as an account of what arguably was an early step in the decline of political discourse on television. After limited theatrical play and pubcast rotation, the film should enjoy a long shelf life as a teaching tool in broadcasting, political science and communications studies courses.
Ironically, the documakers emphasize early on, this epochal event was less a primetime innovation than a product of desperation. In 1968, ABC was a chronic also-ran in the ratings race, and eager to pinch pennies while appealing to viewers. Which is why, even though NBC and CBS still considered gavel-to-gavel coverage of the quadrennial Democratic and Republican conventions to be standard operating procedure, ABC opted to break from tradition and instead offer nightly 90-minute recaps of the ’68 events.
Someone at ABC News had the bright idea to include “debates” between two politically opposed commentators as part of the primetime package. Buckley, then a high-profile figure thanks to his National Review magazine and “Firing Line” television talkshow, was enlisted to speak for the right wing; Vidal, a noted author, playwright and political commentator whose novel “Myra Breckinridge” was at the time a much-publicized succes de scandale, agreed to represent the left. Ultimately — inevitably, really — the combination of these two combustible elements had explosive results. “It’s a cherry bomb that’s waiting to go off,” quips interviewee Christopher Hitchens. “And eventually does.”
Time and again, “Best of Enemies” reminds us that the past really is a foreign country, and they certainly did do things differently there. The late ‘60s was a time when erudite intellectuals such as Vidal and Buckley were widely recognized celebrities, routinely invited as guests on latenight talkshows hosted by the likes of Jack Paar and Dick Cavett. Indeed, their fame was such that they also popped up in even more improbable places. It’s a toss-up as to which vintage clip in this documentary is funnier: Buckley haughtily trading quips with the cast of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” or Vidal suavely hobnobbing with Hugh Hefner on “Playboy After Dark.”
Viewers too young to remember this halcyon era may be surprised that ’60s viewers were amused by two distinctively mannered and unabashedly effete gentlemen who spoke in what Neil Buckley, Bill’s surviving brother, describes during on-camera commentary as “patrician, languid accents.” As linguist and political commentator John McWhorter notes: “This has always been an anti-intellectual country. These days, anybody who spoke like these two in public would be seen to be heartless.”
Once they sat down together for ABC News, however, both Buckley and Vidal proved fully capable of engaging in the rhetorical version of bloodsport. Right from the start, veteran anchor Howard K. Smith sounds uncomfortable at best, fretful at worst, as he serves as off-camera host (and referee) and attempts to maintain some sense of decorum.
The first encounter, excerpted at length here, sets the pattern: Buckley and Vidal trade prickly jabs and counterpunches during what seems more like dueling monologues than a true debate, devoting less time to political arguments than to catty insults. (Buckley: “I’m almost through.” Vidal: “In every sense.”) At the end of the initial dust-up, Smith gamely comments, “I think I detected some unfinished lines of thought.” In this context, his understatement comes off as laugh-out-loud hilarious.
While charting the steady escalation of animosity between Vidal and Buckley in their nightly match-ups — first during the relatively peaceful Republican National Convention in Miami, then during the infamous chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago — “Best of Enemies” neatly balances contextual observation with blow-by-blow commentary. By 1968, political conventions had already evolved — or, more accurately, devolved — into made-for-television sideshows. Republican convention organizers, mindful that conventions would henceforth be broadcast in color, advise female attendees to wear clothing that appears “vivid but not garish.” In stark contrast, the far less controlled Democratic convention is depicted as a tinderbox even before the battles between riot police and anti-war protestors begin.
Fighting in the streets outside brings out the worst in the verbal combatants before the ABC News cameras. Buckley — who never misses an opportunity to hiss the title “Myra Breckinridge” like a cobra spitting venom — likens the anti-war protestors to bullying fascists, prompting Vidal to reply that “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” And that is when Buckley loses it. “Now listen, you queer,” Buckley angrily snarls. “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” At that point, on-camera interviewee Dick Cavett impishly says, “The network nearly shat.”
(Amazingly enough — and “Best of Enemies” inexplicably makes only fleeting reference to this — Buckley and Vidal actually were allowed back on the air the following evening, and each man appeared to be straining mightily to remain on his best behavior during their segment.)
Despite the outrage and condemnation sparked by this very public meltdown — a spectacle that today would go viral quicker and wider than a clip of cute kittens — ABC News took ample comfort in the fact that its truncated convention coverage scored higher ratings than the gavel-to-gavel marathons on NBC and CBS. (This, of course, marked the beginning of the end of full-scale convention coverage by all three broadcast networks.) And the entire episode apparently became an endless source of delight for Vidal, who gleefully relished — even while it actually happened — his ability to bait Buckley into his unseemly outburst. The film indicates that Buckley later viewed his eruption with extremely mixed feelings.
“Best of Enemies” never gets heavy-handed while attempting to illustrate the true historical importance of what might still be viewed by many as nothing more than an obscure and eccentric bit of prime-time misadventure. Even so, the documentary artfully entwines insightful commentaries by interviewees (including intimates and critics of both subjects) and vintage footage of the actual “debates” to cogently indicate the dire ripple effects of the Buckley-Vidal faceoffs. Even as they give their audience several good laughs, they also provide generous servings of food for thought.
And talk about great casting: While reading passages from the writings of both men, Kelsey Grammer serves as the off-camera “voice” of Buckley (who died in 2008), and John Lithgow does the same for Vidal (who passed on in 2012). They are nothing short of pitch-perfect.