Through some karmic quirk I saw the Detroit GOP debate within forty-eight hours of watching "The Best of Enemies," a documentary about the famous on-air confrontation between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic Convention that then seemed as apocalyptic as a showdown between Mothra and Godzilla. More innocent times, to be sure.
The movie describes events in the summer of 1968, at each party's presidential epiphany. Relying on archival footage, participant interviews, and contemporary punditry, it examines the Buckley-Vidal debates both in historic context and personal and public aftermath.
The debates had their origin in ABC's frantic efforts to fight its way out of the ratings cellar--third out of three--in its convention coverage. It recruited pro-war anti-hippy Buckley as a color commentator. Buckley had catapulted onto the national stage when still in his twenties with Man and God at Yale, and had consolidated his intellectual celebrity with the editorship of the still-enduring National Review and visibility--to the extent possible--on PBS with "The Firing Line." Buckley told ABC that the one person he would not consider appearing with was Gore Vidal, iconoclastic left-wing novelist and Kennedy cousin.
Like Buckley, Vidal had seen the limelight early--he was nineteen when his first novel, Williwaw, appeared; his second, The City and the Pillar, scandalized middlebrow America with its frank homoeroticism. Julian, his first historical novel, was an exhaustively researched love letter to an obscure fourth-century Roman Emperor who had abjured Christianity and attempted to restore Hellenism--not a subject calculated to endear Vidal to the rabidly Catholic Buckley. Vidal had also written a couple of successful plays, including The Best Man--which also featured a gay story line--as well as several screenplays. But most importantly, as the campaign season began, Vidal released Myra Breckenridge, a broad satire with a transexual protagonist. In 1968.
So naturally, ABC got Gore. (And yes, Gore Vidal and Al Gore are cousins; the former's birth name was Eugene Gore.) It's not clear why, despite his initial opposition, Buckley went forward. But it was agreed that the two would meet in ten live debates, five at each of the parties' conventions that summer.
The movie's title suggests that the debates were a spirited but respectful examination of divergent views between mutual admirers. By the standards of the modern GOP, which now embrace dick jokes, they were. But from the first moment of the archival tapes, the opponents' hatred for one another makes the black-and-white footage crackle. Their styles emphasized their existential difference: Buckley rumpled and twitchy, with an assortment of tics that could now be medicated away; Vidal polished, urbane, and just a little feline. Buckley, secure in his superior forensic skills, didn't bother to prepare; Vidal conducted what we'd now call opposition research and scripted and rehearsed his ad libs. Curiously, the men shared a languid patrician drawl, Buckley's exaggerated beyond caricature, nowhere to be found today.
What followed was a crucifixion in nine parts. Though Buckley was the better debater, Vidal was more prepared, peppering his opponent with quotations from his own editorials, forcing him into denials and explanations that kept him simmering with irritation across multiple meetings.
Buckley boiled over in the ninth debate on August 28. Over the previous few days the Chicago police had gone wild on protesters at the Democratic Convention, deploying tear gas, batons, and indiscriminate arrests with abandon. Buckley, of course, sided with the cops, citing the protesters' attempt to raise a Viet Cong flag as provocation equal to a display of the swastika during World War II.
Things got ugly. Vidal remarked offhandedly that the only "pro- or crypto-Nazi that I know is you"
Buckley snapped. "Now listen, you queer," he said. "Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."
What's remarkable about this exchange--other than that, as Dick Cavett said, "ABC shat"--is the debaters' expressions, both captured in closeup. Buckley's face is twisted with a visceral loathing. Vidal, on the other hand, is grinning. He's won.
The debate continued to haunt both antagonists. Vidal later skewered Buckley in Esquire; Buckley responded in kind. Buckley sued Vidal; Vidal counterclaimed. On the last episode of "The Firing Line," a guest moderator showed Buckley a clip from the debate and asked him to comment. After a long, difficult silence all Buckley could say was, "I thought the tape had been destroyed."
Vidal was equally hagridden. He outlived Buckley by a few years, his erstwhile elegance erased by alcoholism and obesity. When he got word of Buckley's death, he wrote in his journal "William F. Buckley, RIP--in hell."
My own interest in this episode is intensely personal. On August 28, 1968--the night of Buckley's meltdown--I had just turned twelve. Thus I was allowed to be out late enough to see the debate, in real time, in grainy monochrome on a portable TV in Bill Everhart's basement. Oblivious to their vitriol, I was entranced by the debaters' intelligence and eloquence. For that reason I started reading both--way, way too early. Buckley I found difficult, not so much because of his Latinate polysyllabism but the obscurity of his topics--a protracted assault on a proposed Civilian Review Board of police violence in New York made little sense to an early adolescent in southwestern Pennsylvania. And speaking of adolescent incomprehension, though Julian remains one of my favorite books, one I reread every few years, its early-sixties sexual euphemisms defeated even my dogwhistle-sharp erotic senses: I was well into my twenties before I figured out that a slave's "making love to" Julian's brother Germanicus while they talked about matters of state was a discreet reference to a blowjob. Nevertheless both Buckley and Vidal had an enormous impact on my development, so much so that when my own first novel--an account of the Iliad in prose--appeared, I sent a copy to Vidal. He immediately died. I refuse responsibility.
Despite an excellent critical reception, the movie died in the box office. It deserves better. Not only does it show us the earliest days of politics in living color, when lady delegates to the GOP Convention could be schooled by the party in clothing palettes suitable for television, but a time even more savagely divided than our own in which civilities were somehow maintained. For the significance of Buckley's outburst was its singularity; neither he, nor any other public figure, in those days of fullblown war, convulsed campuses, and burning ghettoes, would ever have spoken those words on television, whatever the provocation. Whether their utterance then began the descent that led to our present depravity, in which CNN headlines the GOP frontrunner's junk, is impossible to say; what the movie makes clear is that this moment of proto-punditry exacted a terrible cost on its participants.