Editor’s Note: Saw this movie at the Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. A whole lot more fun to watch than you might think. Made me nostalgic for the old days when there were programs like the Dick Cavett talk show on network TV.
“Best of Enemies”
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
Minutes (Rated R for some sexual content/nudity and strong language)
A documentary about two men of letters debating the upcoming 1968 election
sounds excruciatingly boring, but “Best of Enemies,” was surprisingly fun.
I’d recommend it to anyone who likes politics and contemporary history, or is
interested in seeing how a heavyweight fight between two evenly matched
opponents is going to turn out.
A documentary about two men of letters debating the upcoming 1968 election sounds excruciatingly boring, but “Best of Enemies,” was surprisingly fun. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes politics and contemporary history, or is interested in seeing how a heavyweight fight between two evenly matched opponents is going to turn out.
At the time of the two political conventions in 1968, ABC-TV was faring so poorly in the ratings that the network couldn’t afford gavel-to-gavel coverage; hence, they opted for 90 minutes a night, with a representative from the Left and the Right debating the issues of the day. The first person approached was conservative icon William F. Buckley, founder of the “The National Review.” When asked whom he would not want to share a stage with, he replied, “a communist … or Gore Vidal.” So, naturally, ABC hired Vidal.
The pairing of two intellectuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum was more than just ideologically combustible. The truth was the two men absolutely despised each other in every way. Buckley — stodgy, traditional and prudishly Catholic — passionately believed Vidal, an openly gay leftist, represented a new wave of degeneracy that threatened to engulf the nation. For his part, Vidal was contemptuous of Buckley’s values, which he saw as the greedy war mongering of the hereditary aristocracy that comprised the Republican oligarchy.
At the same time, the film makes much of their similarities. Highly educated, patrician and each an elitist in his own way, both men came from privileged childhoods in exclusive prep schools, and both were from prominent, politically active families. Both had served in the armed forces, were prolific authors, and it’s quite possible that what disgusted them most was how much each could see in the other the reverse side of the same coin.
For example, both spoke with the same odd accent, which sounds like nothing regionally identifiable. Sometimes called “a mid-Atlantic,” because it has no location any GPS can pinpoint, it probably arose from their prep school upbringing, and sounds totally unnatural. The word that comes to mind is “affected” — a somewhat effeminate style of speech that sounded like two guys trying to imitate Katherine Hepburn acting the role of a member of the British monarchy. Nowadays, in a public school, anyone who spoke like that would be beaten up regularly.
In an op-ed, I once lamented the state of current political discourse. On the Left, pundits such as Vidal and Christopher Hitchens have been replaced by hucksters such as Al Sharpton. On the Right, Buckley is gone, superseded by freshman-year dropouts like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, while elegant, educated conservatives, such as George Will, are being supplanted by the uneducated and ignorant Rush Limbaugh. Meanwhile, on college campuses, leftist professors, administrators and students are using political correctness to restrict free speech.
Nonetheless, the 1968 Buckley-Vidal debates would be right at home on Fox News or MSNBC in 2015, and were the harbingers of shouting matches such as CNN’s “Crossfire” or “the O’Reilly Factor.” It’s safe to say that neither Buckley, nor Vidal acquitted himself well, and neither was proud of his childish performance by the time the conventions had ended. And based on this movie, the “good old days” of political discourse that op-ed columnists like myself feel such nostalgic for may not have been all they were cracked up to be.
Prior to the first series of debates in Miami, Buckley had gone sailing, while Vidal had prepared, and was loaded for bear, citing selected Buckley quotes that made him sound like a right-wing fanatic. Prior to the second series, in Chicago, Buckley had done his homework, and returned the favor, playing gotcha with insulting remarks made by Vidal’s ostensible friends and colleagues. In both debates, these intellectual titans rapidly degenerated into name calling and personal insults.
In Miami, Vidal opened with snide comments about Republicans in general, and Buckley followed with an ad hominem attack on Vidal’s character. Both men were comfortable talking down to their inferiors, so watching both simultaneously and arrogantly trying to condescend to the other is a delight. The viewer waits for some sign of grudging admiration between the two, but there’s never any indication that either felt any respect for the other. All they seemed to feel for each other was unmitigated and uninterrupted contempt.
Spoiler Alert: The climax of the film comes two-thirds of way in (during the ninth debate), when Vidal insisted on calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” to which Buckley called him a “queer,” and threatened to punch him in “his goddamn face.” At this point, the camera closed in on Buckley’s face, where the loathing was palpable. Vidal looked calm (after all, he’d eventually be both punched and head-butted by Norman Mailer), and he seemed to be enjoying the process of goading his opponent toward violence.
The suspense comes with waiting to see whether they’d actually come to blows, but neither man was a Maileresque tough guy. I would have loved to have seen the poor moderator, Howard K. Smith, trying to break up a brawl (which probably would have been embarrassing) between these two effete intellectuals. I’m imagining a slap fight between two teenage girls, swiping at each other with open hands and their eyes closed, each calling the other, “You bitch.”
Both men followed the debates with long, tortured articles in “Esquire” magazine, in which they tried to explain their behavior, which followed them for the rest of their lives. They exchanged lawsuits, and answered questions about this encounter until their deaths. It was said that Vidal held on just long enough to see Buckley pass on, so that he could get in the last word: “RIP WFB — in hell.”
There’s already Oscar buzz about this film in the documentary category. It’s well-deserved. And you’ll learn something watching it — how we got to where we are today, with Fox News and MSNBC following in the footsteps of Buckley and Vidal. And you’ll observe that the culture wars of the 1960s were the same ones we’re fighting today, and they were every bit as rude, overemotional, childish and fun.
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