Best of Enemies is a film about the ten debates which took place between William F. Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal on ABC during the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968. It’s wickedly funny and anyone who’s interested in politics and the history of television should go and see it.
ABC decided to do the debates (live and unscripted) because they needed to get their ratings up. Buckley was asked who he would refuse to debate with and replied a communist or Gore Vidal.
So naturally ABC chose Gore Vidal.
The two men came from very similar affluent backgrounds but occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum. Buckley was known for presenting a TV show called The Firing Line, he was the founder of the National Review, a right-wing magazine, he had been in the CIA and had written a book favouring McCarthy; Gore Vidal, had written The City and the Pillar, (1948) which was ground breaking for its dispassionate presentation of male homosexuality. The book had so horrified The New York Times that it refused to review any more of Vidal’s books. Vidal responded by writing three crime novels (with PI Peter Cutler Sargent) under the pseudonym Edgar Box. In 1968 the year of the debate he had written the novel Myra Breckinridge, a satire on conventional American sexuality and the first novel in which the main character undergoes a clinical sex-change. He had also been the screenwriter on the 1959 film Ben-Hur.
Interestingly, by the time they met in these debates both men had run for office – Buckley for mayor of New York in 1965 and Vidal for Congress in 1960. Both had lost. Both men were intellectuals, both men loathed each other and viewed the other’s political views as dangerous.
Knowing that Buckley liked to wing it, Vidal hired a researcher so during the first five debates that took place during the Republican convention he was the one landing most punches.
He was also the one that didn’t sweat or lose his earpiece.
William Buckley, a good looking man with huge blue eyes and a somewhat unnerving smile, realised that he would have to step up a level. By the time of the Democratic convention in Chicago he was better prepared, producing a letter Bobby Kennedy had written to him containing derogatory comments about Vidal. Vidal, who was distantly related to Jackie Kennedy (they shared a step-father) had fallen out with Bobby Kennedy and now made some dismissive comments about the writer. Not perhaps the most diplomatic approach since Bobby Kennedy had been shot two months earlier.
Things finally came to a head in their penultimate debate on August 28th. The discussion was about how the Chicago police had dealt with people protesting against the Vietnam war at the Democratic convention. Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley lost it and said roughly the following:
“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 above clip things kick off about 10 minutes in.
The look of triumphant amusement on Vidal’s face is telling. He explained afterwards that he had wanted people to see the cuckoo which lived in Buckley’s head and out it had come. He had got his ‘Caine Mutiny’ moment. Afterwards Buckley was mortified that he had allowed himself to be goaded into behaving in that manner. The show however had been a huge hit for ABC and changed the nature of political broadcasting.
The following year Buckley wrote a long essay in Esquire magazine: On Experiencing Gore Vidal. Vidal replied the following month with: A Distasteful Encounter with William Buckley. The two men then sued each other and the litigation rolled on for several years.
Buckley’s TV show The Firing Line continued until 1999. In 1976 Buckley also turned his hand to crime writing with the first of ten spy novels, Saving the Queen, figuring CIA agent Blackford Oakes. There’s probably another post to be written here about the propensity for right wingers to write thrillers and left wingers to write PI books but I’ll save that for another time. In 1982 Vidal ran for the senate in California but failed to win. In this link below you’ll find a slightly surreal clip of Vidal acting the part of a senator debating with Tim Robbins in the film Bob Roberts.
This was a feud that lasted. In Buckley’s final appearance on TV the clip of him losing his temper was shown and he was mortified; he thought the film had been destroyed. An assistant to Vidal describes him watching a video of the debates over and over again like Norma Desmond watching herself in Sunset Boulevard.
When Buckley died Vidal wrote: William F. Buckley Jr RIP in hell.
Below is the link for an assessment of Vidal’s detective novels in the New Yorker:
Have you seen the film? What did you think?