William Buckley is famous for his public affairs show “Firing Line” (1966-1999). “Firing Line” aired longer than any other debate show, with the same host. Recently, seven years after his death, Buckley is front-and-centre in a new documentary.
The title of the documentary is “Best of Enemies.” Its focus is the 1968 debates between Buckley and Gore Vidal, during the 1969 US Presidential Election. These debates focused on the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
The 1968 election was one of the most painful in American history. The country was in the midst of the horrible Vietnam War. President Lindon Johnson announced he would not run again, leaving the Democratic field wide open.
The Buckley and Vidal debates were radically novel for the time. It is true that there had been news shows before then. On these programs, precious little took place in the way of debate; the discussion was fire-breathing arguments involved men that did not like each other, at all.
ABC Television asked Buckley if he would like to take part in television debates. Buckley said he would be interested in contesting only Communists and Vidal. Nobody else, in his opinion, was worth his taking on.
Things turned out in a way that Buckley could not have foreseen. Vidal saw the show as an opportunity to attack the “National Review,” the conservative news weekly founded by William F Buckley, among others, in the 1950s. Many of the attacks by Vidal used quotes from the “National Review” taken out of context.
“Best of Enemies” includes ten Buckley and Vidal debates. The movie consists of original footage of the two men debating. During the debates, many people in the audience asked questions.
A young woman asked Buckley, “Do you think miniskirts are good taste?” This is hardly a question for a fire-breathing debate. As all documentaries, “Best of Enemies” features comments by those who knew the men.
Prior to the 1968 debates for ABC Television, Vidal was the only person with whom Buckley would not go on television; would not have on “Firing Line.” A comment, by an old friend of Buckley, makes that clear. Indeed, for Buckley, Vidal was “the devil.”
“Best of Enemies” represents “two visions of America, clashing.” Each debater thought the other “quite dangerous.” Were Buckley not taken out, his ideas would “take down the nation,” said Vidal.
“Best of Enemies,” directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, is a retrospective dating back forty-seven years. Yet, Gordon immediately saw the debates as contemporary. When he was trying to raise the money, many people failed to see the relevance.
Gordon saw the roots of the contemporary culture wars in the Buckley and Vidal antagonism. He and Neville wanted to let audiences develop their own contemporary analogies at the end. They could then confirm it for themselves.
Gordon and Neville toyed with the idea of bringing in the contemporary aspect earlier. That approach did not work; it was better waiting until the end. Viewers like developing their own ideas and later seeing that filmmakers thought similarly.
Thus, Gordon and Neville took their film into the present. They didn’t need to do much mowing. The directors took the viewers from the present to the past and back, again.
Gordon had called Neville, saying he had a bootleg tape of the debates. “Do you want to see them?” Neville absolutely did.
Neville had been Vidal’s fact checker shortly after graduating from college. He says huge characters, Buckley and Vidal, inspire him. “I’m a sucker for great characters,” he said.
Neville remembers Vidal as “a thorny person his entire life.” Neville knew nothing of Vidal other than he was unique media persona. Even so, Neville has found Vidal to be a “totally fascinating” man.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Buckley and Vidal were huge pop culture figures. “Firing Line” was the chief promoter of the right-wing political views, on television. These views, on “Firing Line” and in the “National Review,” gave life to Reaganomics in the next decade.
Buckley’s first book was the revolutionary right wing, “God and Man at Yale” (1951). Four years later, he founded the “National Review” magazine. He was a proponent of that new Goldwater Republicanism or the “harder right.”
Vidal was an essayist, playwright, novelist and screenwriter. Buckley and Vidal, says Neville, “were incredible minds and incredibly learned.” They had much else in common, including, prep school in New England and unusual middle-Atlantic accents, likely learned at prep school. Buckley and Vidal were unique for their time, on public television, as public intellectuals.
The public, at the time, took hardened sides. “Buckley represented everything that was going to moral hell,” was a common chant. So too was, “It’s almost as if Buckley and Vidal were matter and antimatter.”
Buckley despised Vidal. Vidal despised Buckley. They called each other crypto-Nazi and almost came to blows, on one of the debates, in 1968. As the last line of “Best of Enemies” reads, “The debate was the harbinger of an unhappy future.”
“Best of Enemies” is “exhilarating, hilarious, riveting, fascinating and hugely fun.” Buckley and Vidal were indeed the “Best of Enemies.” This show well deserves its title. Because of their mutual enmity, Buckley and Vidal, “Best of Enemies” is solid entertainment.
Jane Doe writes from the American South East.
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