The late summer of 1968 was an explosive, angry time in America. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated within months of each other, anti-war protesters and civil rights activists clashed violently with police, and the presidential elections were approaching. The future of the country seemed to hang in the balance.
In late August, when election season began in earnest, ABC invited the liberal writer Gore Vidal and the conservative thinker William F. Buckley, Jr. to debate on live TV. Buckley and was the founder and editor of the National Review, and is often considered the founding father of modern conservatism. Vidal was an eloquent and outspoken writer whose novels—a recent one had featured a transexual prostitute—predicted a liberated America that terrified Buckley. They were brilliant, witty, charismatic intellectuals who embodied two opposing visions of America.
The debates were a gamble for ABC. They were scheduled during the Republican and Democratic conventions, which the network couldn’t afford to cover gavel-to-gavel, as the two leading networks, CBS and NBC, were planning. ABC desperately needed to boost ratings, but the network couldn’t have predicted that this would become an iconic moment in television history, and the harbinger of what passes as public discourse on TV decades later.
“It did create a precedent for the talk-and-shout TV we have today,” says James Baughmann, a journalism historian and professor at the University of Wisconsin. “A lot of TV history was made by accident. This was an accident.”
That’s the premise of the documentary Best of Enemies, which combines footage from the debates with commentary from biographers, journalists, and historians for a smart, entertaining look at what happens when two of America’s sharpest political thinkers are pitted against each other.
CJR spoke to Robert Gordon, one of the film’s two directors.
Let’s start with the premise of the documentary: that the debates between Vidal and Buckley in 1968 changed television and started us on the path to today’s TV punditry. Why was this was such a pivotal moment?
This is when networks learned that shouting sells, and that principled discourse sells. It wasn’t something they set out to learn, or something they anticipated, but it was the result.
The debates were a turning point specifically for ABC, which was trailing far behind NBC and CBS. How far-reaching were the effects? Did this change how the networks covered politics?
I think very much. First, ABC was ridiculed for not doing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions, but after 1968, all the networks copied ABC. That was the last year any of the networks had gavel-to-gavel coverage. The second difference is the color commentary. After Vidal and Buckley, TV moved to more lively exchange.
What was the genesis of this movie for you?
A friend of mine in Memphis, where I live, had a bootleg DVD of the debates. He’s always been very interested in this. When I saw it, I was really struck at how it was anticipating the culture wars that we live in now, how everything they said could be applied to today, and that was kind of shocking, and exciting. I was raised watching Bill Buckley on TV and with library shelves lined with Gore Vidal’s books, so I knew the depth of these characters. And the drama was there, and the footage was there, so we knew there was a documentary there.
What makes the debates such a good show is partly that it wasn’t only intellectual debate, there was also that element of “verbal bloodsport,” as your co-director called it. There was real debate there, and there was also really good entertainment. Does this prove that theater and honest debate can be compatible?
In a way, the whole conflict in the nation in 1968 is at play here. There is a very strong theatrical element. Both Vidal and Buckley came to an early understanding of television, and they were the rare public intellectuals who were not afraid of television, and who also were very good on television.
And then [there’s] the fact that their beliefs were almost antithetical. The fact that Buckley was so pro-corporate and Vidal was so anti-corporate, that Buckley was staunchly Catholic and Vidal was a pansexualist—these made them fear each other, because they each thought the other’s ideas could take down the nation.
At stake is the very fate of the nation. And those stakes, those fears, are embodied in the other person, so that these personal attacks are political attacks. Which makes it very different from personal attacks that we see now, that are certainly theatrical, but they’re not really about—no one really believes that the [fate of the] nation is at stake.
1968 was an important and divisive time. What are some of the parallels or similarities between the political climate of 1968 and today?
I remember being struck by [the notion of] empire as being one. When they’re talking about America in Vietnam, we could easily be talking about America in Iraq or Afghanistan. And then economic disparities. There’s a moment that makes me nostalgic, sickly nostalgic, when Vidal refers to “5% of the population have 20% of the income” and it’s like, oh my god. He’s bemoaning that, and now it seems like the good old days.
And of course the racial issues, and the battles with the police. All that is going on right now, and was clearly going on then.
The documentary mentions that in 1968, TV was still a public square, everyone was looking at the same thing. What’s changed today?
Media’s place in society has changed, and it’s a double edged sword. Then, the news was determined by a group of white-haired, white males sitting around skyscrapers in Manhattan who said, “This is the news,” and the newscasters gave it to us, so we all shared that news, for better or worse. There was a shared sense of fact.
One of the attractive things for Buckley and Vidal was that they could change minds. People watching your network weren’t necessarily set in their views. It’s not like the audience watching Fox News now, where you’re preaching to the choir. So Buckley and Vidal had the opportunity to reach people who didn’t believe as they believed, and try to convince them.
Now we have the internet, which allows news to be created by individuals on the scene. Tahrir Square comes to mind. Ferguson, Missouri comes to mind. All these opportunities where an individual has captured something, has posted it, and that has become national news. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s democratization of the news.
The bad thing is that at the same time, people are posting falsehoods as facts. There’s a saying that’s been repeated in various forms: “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions but we all have to share the same facts.” No longer are we sharing the same set of facts, and that’s a dangerous situation.
Do you consider the conversation between Buckley and Vidal a form of journalism?
Yes, absolutely I do. I think that they are exchanging ideas on a public platform, and that’s journalism.
The most dramatic moment of the debate is kind of painful to watch. Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-nazi” and Buckley spits back, with real, visible animosity, “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.” If the debates were really about the intellectual prowess of these men, why highlight the personal drama?
It is the denouement of a drama that begins in the very first debate weeks earlier in Miami. It’s very important the names that each calls the other. “Nazi” was a way to discount all of Buckley’s achievements. Vidal hit him in a way that undermined everything Buckley had worked towards at the time, although at the moment and in the context there’s actually some… well, it’s just too strong a word.
And “queer” is [meant] to undermine everything that Vidal stands for. It’s not that Buckley is a gay-basher, but by calling Vidal a queer, he’s saying, “You can’t be trusted. You look like one of us, but you’re not, you’re different, and hence you’re subversive, and your ideas are going to subvert the nation.”
To not have focused on that would have been to ignore the denouement. As drama and as journalism, it’s a moment that has to be understood. Vidal and Buckley each thought the other was dangerous and their vision of America was going to be its downfall. They really cared about it. They weren’t just talking heads using talking points.
Do you think we have pundits of that caliber commenting on national news today?
Television doesn’t like to create a place of engagement because they’d rather have a professional wrestling type atmosphere where audiences will become emotionally angered by what they hear, and tune in for more. It’s like a fast food diet. It’s bad for you; it doesn’t nourish, but it’s filling.
I think that if there were an environment that allowed for more exchange of ideas, then an audience for it would grow quickly.