‘Best of Enemies,’ a Great Look at a Not-So-Great Turning Point in U.S. History

“Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

In the annals of 20th century literary feuds, that stream of invective hurled by William F. Buckley, Jr. into the surprised puss of Gore Vidal surely ranks at the top. Other contenders for the prize might be Mary McCarthy’s remark about Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Or Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “It isn’t writing at all—it’s typing.”

When I was growing up I thrilled to these stories of literary lions ripping each other apart, and though I’d heard the Buckley quote many, many times (full disclosure—from an early age I was a diehard Vidal fan) I never knew the context in which they were spoken. I vaguely knew it involved the 1968 Democratic Convention, but I never knew what Vidal had done to make Buckley so furious.

So here come documentarians Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville to finally fill in the gaps with their not-to-be-missed Best of Enemies. This documentary not only examines the history between Buckley and Vidal which led to that remark, it does an outstanding job of setting the context, as well as providing backstage information on their debates and how their altercation changed the face of modern political discourse.

The Moves and Men Behind the Cage Match

Here’s the larger arc of the film: In 1968, ABC News engaged Buckley and Vidal for a series of 10 short debates about the political issues of the day, pegged to the Presidential conventions occurring that summer. Though the debates began civilly enough, by the time the men got to the ninth session their cordial antagonism had given way to more direct confrontation and, in one heated exchange, Buckley burst forth with that quote.

But here’s the backstory … and what Best of Enemies does such a great job of relating. The news division of ABC had, for years, been trailing CBS (home of Walter Cronkite) and NBC (Chet Huntley and David Brinkley). In those days the standard for televising the major parties’ national conventions was to put a fleet of cameras and reporters on the convention floor and do gavel-to-gavel coverage. ABC couldn’t actually afford that, so the network’s news chiefs announced they’d only be presenting 90-minute nightly wrap-ups—five for the five days of the Republican convention in Miami and five more at the Chicago Democratic convention two weeks later.

As part of the package they approached Buckley about agreeing to debate someone from the liberal side. By this time Buckley had not only run for mayor of New York City on the Conservative ticket (he lost to Republican incumbent John Lindsay), he also had founded the National Review, the leading magazine for the conservative movement in America, and he’d become a regular in American homes as the host of Firing Line, a conservative talk show on PBS. Buckley was a member of the far-right wing of the Republican party. Known at the time as Goldwater Republicans, they would morph into Reagan Republicans and ultimately become what we now call the Tea Party.

Far from being a fire-breathing shouter, though, Buckley was a patrician—a scion of the moneyed and cultured East Coast elite who, more than anything, provided the philosophical backbone for the modern conservative movement. When asked if there was anyone he wouldn’t debate on ABC, he said that he wouldn’t appear with a communist … or with Gore Vidal.

So, of course, ABC hired Vidal. Vidal had made his name as a novelist, a Hollywood screenwriter, a Broadway playwright, and a leading voice in the American liberal movement. Like Buckley, Vidal came from money and power, and his notoriety had skyrocketed that year with the publication of Myra Breckinridge, a scathing satire of the culture and politics of the ’60s as well as the first major literary work featuring a transgender lead character. (And, if I may add, the first six chapters of which are probably the funniest piece of writing in any novel in the English language.)

Buckley and Vidal had already sparred in print and on various TV shows. Each man considered the other—particularly the ideas he possessed—to be not merely bad, but actually dangerous to the future of the nation. Buckley was a devout Catholic who believed in a vision of America run democratically, yes, but only if the leaders were democratically elected elites like himself. From that perspective Vidal was a traitor to his class, and his transgressive views on the political, social, sexual, and religious levels could only bring about the destruction of American society.

Vidal in turn believed that Buckley’s love of military might, America’s love-it-or-leave-it ethos and patriarchal hegemony hid a totalitarian and blatantly racist world view. Over the course of the debates Vidal relentlessly kept chipping away at Buckley’s bemused detachment. (Vidal had famously studied Buckley’s previous writings in preparation for the debates while Buckley, instead, took a sailing cruise to Cozumel.) After realizing that he’d been losing on a nightly basis during the first five contests held against the backdrop of the Republican convention, Buckley upped his game considerably when they met again for the next five during the Democratic convention.

Tear Gas and Vitriol

As you may know, the 1968 Democratic convention turned into a disaster—or, rather, the streets of Chicago became a full-blown riot scene, thanks in large part to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s militaristic response to the crowds that had gathered there to protest the Vietnam War. On the day of the ninth debate Vidal (along with Paul Newman and Arthur Miller) got caught in a tear-gas assault by the Chicago police, and at the debate that night he spoke up for the anti-war demonstrators. Buckley kept interrupting Vidal to praise Daley and America’s involvement in Vietnam. Vidal attempted to silence him and called Buckley a crypto-Nazi … which led (as indeed the entire documentary does) to Buckley’s attack on Vidal.

What you don’t get from reading the Buckley quote—but get to see in the clip of the remark—is the expression of vitriolic hatred with which Buckley flings the words at Vidal. Gone is the famous Buckley smirk (which he used on everyone) and in its place is a contorted face rigid with an almost murderous fury. Even now, nearly 50 years later, it’s frightening to see.

Best of Enemies does an amazing job with the whole story, not just illuminating the men’s history before this fateful meeting, but also providing an efficient and informative overview of the political landscape of the time. Among other things the film examines the Republican party as it was slowly evolving from the benignly moderate leadership of figures like Dwight Eisenhower (and a country which worshiped him) to the seismic changes in policy and style ushered in by Ronald Reagan.

…And We’ve Never Been the Same

The film details the fallout from the debates. Buckley’s reputation never fully recovered from what some people saw as the revelation of his true, hostile nature. Vidal, too, had trouble moving beyond that moment: A friend relates how, on visits to Vidal’s home in Italy years later, part of the nightly entertainment was watching a video copy of the debates—over and over again.

Best of Enemies strives to make an interesting point: that the debates forever changed media coverage of politics in America. Though initially scorned by the press, the debates were a huge ratings bonanza for ABC, and since then political coverage on TV has come more and more to involve not a discussion of the issues, but rather people from opposite ends of the spectrum launching personal attacks instead of illuminating examination.

I’m not sure I totally believe the thesis put forward by Gordon and Neville, but I absolutely endorse their brilliant documentary and urge anyone concerned about American politics, and how it got the way it is, to see this film.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.