Make no mistake about it, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. detested each other. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville explore this fact in the 2015 documentary Best of Enemies, a mostly straightforward film that essentially contends with the 1968 debates between the two American intellectuals. The movie apparently was five years in the making thanks to issues with locating footage and securing funding.
Best of Enemies isn’t about one particular point of view, even if it does feature two strongly political figures. It rather deals with the matter of discourse, charting a line from the Vidal/Buckley debates to what passes for modern “debates” in cable news factories. This is an important line to consider, especially when one considers how influential such polarizing dialogue proves to be.
In the late 1960s, ABC was trailing behind NBC and CBS in just about every way. Their news broadcasts were presented with tattered budgets and they scrambled to cover the Republican National Convention in Miami. Desperate, they came up with the idea of throwing liberal novelist Gore Vidal and conservative commentator William Buckley, Jr. into a series of 10 debates.
The two men hated each other for many reasons and this soon became apparent to ABC’s growing audiences. They scrambled through the Republican National Convention and continued scrapping with the onset of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, even as riots threatened to tear the city apart outside.
It becomes almost immediately apparent that these debates aren’t exactly articulate contests of ideas. For all the intellectual backgrounds of the participants, Vidal and Buckley don’t waste time on the issues. There is a lot of carping, a lot of distraction, a lot of personal attacks. Rather than discussing the Republicans or Democrats, Buckley, Jr. and Vidal debate their own merits.
One could argue that the debates were “informative,” but that hardly seems to be the case. What really seems to be happening is a shift from the trustworthy, factual nature of the news of the era to the wild rodeo of unscripted nattering that epitomizes so much of political punditry. Because there is no respect between Vidal and Buckley, Jr., any actual debate flounders.
Gordon and Neville do well to explore the two men as men rather than sides of a political argument. Vidal may be defending the Democrats, so to speak, but he’s put on trial for his artistic and personal views more than anything else. And Buckley, Jr. may be defending the Republicans, but he’s called on the carpet for all manner of potential personal sins.
Best of Enemies mostly takes the talking head tactic of presenting the debates in partiality while exploring the feelings behind them. John Lithgow reads some of Vidal’s writings while Kelsey Grammer voices Buckley, Jr.’s considerations, drawing a more personal focus to the events unfolding on the screen.
And indeed, things get really personal. At one point, Vidal casts his opponent as a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley, Jr. riles up and calls the other man a “queer” before threatening to punch him in the face. While most would consider this exchange mild by today’s standards, at the time it was a wild and woolly moment that had people riveted.
Did Vidal and Buckley, Jr.’s debates help public discourse? Likely not. But they did expose the population’s raw, seething desire to watch a train crash. For all the cries for civility espoused by some hand-wringers, it seems that shouting sells – just like sex.
Best of Enemies may not be the most innovative documentary, but it covers the subject well and raises some interesting points. It concludes with a flurry of arguing, bellyaching cable news heads, full of the belief that its line has been drawn with enough vigour to matter. For those tired of all the yelling, it may help to know where all the noise may have come from. On the other hand, it may not.