Tales from the Crypto

Andrew Hultkrans on Best of Enemies

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, Best of Enemies, 2015, color, sound, 87 minutes. Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Photo: Archie Lieberman, LOOK Magazine.

POLITICAL PARTY TIME in America has rarely been more riotous than during the 1968 presidential nominating conventions. The stakes—Vietnam, civil rights, the sexual revolution, the counterculture v. the as yet unnamed “silent majority”—were high. The country was as polarized as at any time since the Civil War. Television was more central to the process than ever; Richard Nixon’s chilling, divisive TV ads, created by Gene Jones and later mimicked by the Pavlovian test film in Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), signaled a new era of televisual propaganda in political campaigns. Among the big three networks, ABC News was in a distant third place in Nielsen ratings, and its executives decided to eschew gavel-to-gavel monitoring of the convention floor and instead broadcast what the network called “unconventional convention coverage.” Among other novelties, this included ten debates between two controversial public intellectuals who could not have disagreed more—William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of National Review and modern conservatism, and Gore Vidal, best-selling novelist, world-class libertine, and champion of “unconventional” sexuality.

From this distance, they seem an improbable pair to put on live television to comment on that most mainstream of political events. In today’s America, where avoiding the appearance of elitism at all costs has become de rigueur (except when such elitism is solely based on the size of one’s bank account—see Donald Trump, Kanye West), Buckley and Vidal—with their patrician accents, ostentatious vocabulary, and aristocratic mannerisms—would be regarded as insufferable snobs, talking down to the audience as much as they talked down to each other. Nevertheless, the debates were a hit, raising the profile of ABC News and changing the tone of political punditry forever.

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s brisk, thorough documentary Best of Enemies recounts the ten “rounds” (the “debates” were really more of an intellectual boxing match), the backstories of both men, and the fallout from the confrontation, which colored the lives of the participants for many years afterward. Contemporary reflections from Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Brooke Gladstone, Frank Rich, Sam Tanenhaus, James Wolcott, Vidal’s close friend Matt Tyrnauer, Buckley’s brother Reid, and others dot the deftly sutured montage of vintage footage. The result is not unlike a nonfiction Frost/Nixon (2008), focusing as much on backstage machinations and cultural context as on the main event.

Vidal, having hired a researcher and rehearsed his prewritten, ostensibly ad-lib jibes, landed most of the blows, referring to Buckley’s “Latinate and inaccurate style,” calling him the “Marie Antoinette of the right wing” and the “inspiration for Mr. Myra Breckinridge—passionate and irrelevant,” and dismissing National Review as “your little magazine that I do not read but am told about.” Speaking about the Republican candidates in Miami, Vidal characterized Ronald Reagan as an “aging Hollywood juvenile actor with a right-wing script” and Nixon as a “professional politician who currently represents no discernible interest except his own.” Buckley, somewhat on the ropes, sought to portray Vidal as a pampered hypocrite and moral degenerate.

In the penultimate debate, as Buckley and Vidal discussed radical protesters’ attempt to raise a Viet Cong flag outside the Chicago convention hall and the police response to it, debate moderator Howard Smith compared the act to flying a Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal said to Buckley, “The only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Grimacing in what Hitchens calls a “rictus of loathing,” Buckley hissed, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face!” ABC executives and the television audience were appalled—while Vidal’s orientation was well known, respectable figures simply did not call people “queer” on national television in 1968—but Vidal, sitting calmly with a Cheshire cat grin, knew that this outburst meant he had won the debates. Ultimately, Vidal was right about the futility of the Vietnam War, about America becoming an unsustainable, Rome-like empire, about the eventual triumph of the sexual revolution; Buckley was right that America would respond to all of this by electing a Republican president (Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland exhaustively explores the reasons why this premonition turned out to be correct).

The 1968 Buckley-Vidal skirmishes were as much of a watershed moment for politics on American television as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, which heralded image-based campaigning. Along with Firing Line, Buckley’s combative talk show, they set the template for the Point/Counterpoint format, parodied in its relative infancy by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live, where ideologically polarized pundits turn what should be dispassionate, logical debate into gladiatorial bloodsport—perfect for fans of football and boxing, not so great for nurturing an informed, reasonable body politic. That said, while he was partly responsible for them, Buckley was the very model of sophisticated rationality compared with the paranoid, unprincipled buffoons who constitute his media heirs—Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and his own nephew, Bill O’Reilly. Indeed, an honest assessment of Buckley against his clearly inferior ideological progeny provides some of the best available evidence for the dumbing down of America since 1980.

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, Best of Enemies, 2015, color, sound, 87 minutes. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.

Buckley’s frequent threats of violence toward his ideological enemies, usually followed by a flash of his crocodile smile, were plainly chicken-hawk bluster from an effete glassjaw, one who never would have had the courage—as George Plimpton, another effete glassjaw of his generation, did—to get into the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson. Raymond Chandler once wrote of actor Alan Ladd, a sub-Bogart of compact stature, that he was a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. This line also applies to the saber-rattling pseudosoldiers of the postwar American Right, from Buckley to Nixon to Cheney. The gushing enthusiasm of Buckley biographer and fanboy Sam Tanenhaus in Best of Enemies is more easily understood in this light.

As for “crypto-Nazi,” Vidal’s precipitating insult, what else would you call a man who in the late ’50s advocated for segregation and the maintenance of white supremacy in the American South, calling whites “the advanced race,” who explicitly supported fascist dictators Generalissimo Franco in Spain and General Pinochet in Chile, and who, in an attempt to explain the antipathy of most American Jews to his politics, said on a 1964 radio program, “they [the Jews] tend to construct an engaging political myth, centered around the Hitlerian experience, which more or less suggests that Hitler was the embodiment of the ultra-Right, and that the true enemies of Hitler . . . were, in fact, many of them, Communists during the early ’30s. And under the circumstances they, I think, emotionally feel a kind of toleration for Communist excesses in this country.” “Crypto-fascist” would have been more accurate and less inflammatory, but neither party in the Buckley-Vidal debates was interested in fair play. It was an ad hominem grudge match from start to finish, setting the tone for the fractious partisan politics of the decades that followed. As Best of Enemies reminds us, if more recent pundits had Buckley and Vidal’s elevated wit and delicious turns of phrase at their command, the whole sad spectacle might be marginally more palatable.

Best of Enemies opens in select theaters on Friday, July 31.