The proliferation of political punditry on TV wasn’t always so ubiquitous. Before Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Glenn Beck, Rachael Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, there was William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. In the summer of 1968, ABC news needed something to punch up their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. They were dead last in the ratings behind more established news teams on NBC (Chet Huntley & David Brinkley) and CBS (Walter Cronkite). Conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal didn’t just detest each other, they viewed the other as dangerous to the very fabric of American society. This was a culture war and it would played out on a TV screen. It was an audacious attempt to try something different. Millions tuned in. Ratings soared.
If the idea of two erudite minds with diametrically opposed ideologies duking it out in the intellectual arena sounds exciting to you, then see this movie. We are of like mind incidentally. The way this documentary is constructed is kind of brilliant. Directors Robert Gordon (20 Feet from Stardom) and Morgan Neville masterfully orchestrate a drama built around a battle of wills. The vitriolic hate is palpable. I suspect this chronicle is indeed more interesting than the debates themselves. The forums do not appear in their entirety. We are given sound bites, the selection of which no doubt at the discretion of the filmmakers. However the sampling seems fair and both sides are comparably represented by their apparent friends / fans / devotees. Each of which get equal time to expound on the merits of their idol.
Best of Enemies centers on ten televised debates in 1968 between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal regarding the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Most of the conversation is heated but diplomatic. The climax is fashioned around what is essentially an infamous altercation of name calling between these two loquacious rivals. The discussion centered on freedom of speech in regards to American protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag. Their polite discourse ultimately condensed to a hostile exchange. Gore Vidal baits Buckley with a personal low blow. Buckley strikes back in kind. Buckley and Vidal, these intellectuals with aristocratic bearing, had been reduced to children. According to the documentary, both had a hard time ever forgetting the incident. It was the seed that inspired an article in Esquire that led to a lengthy lawsuit that took years to settle. Individually, these debates had profoundly affected their lives, but more universally it changed the landscape of political punditry. Given the mostly civilized, highbrow rhetoric seen here and what we are now accustomed to, I’d say things have deteriorated considerably.