NEW YORK — When Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. squared off for a series of 10 political debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions, the invective that these intellectual icons hurled at each other was of the kind rarely, if ever, heard on TV. Sparks flew, the two men nearly came to blows, and ratings soared.
A new documentary, “Best of Enemies,” which opens Friday, explores the Vidal-Buckley face-offs and how ABC’s “unconventional convention” coverage marked the birth of now-ubiquitous talking-head news programming and the screaming matches of the political pundit class.
“During the making of the film, the thing we heard over and over again was, ‘Why should we care? This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with us today?’ Now the most common comment we get is, ‘I can’t believe how relevant this is,’ ” explained Morgan Neville, seated across from his co-director, Robert Gordon, on a visit to Manhattan last month.
The debates were something of a Hail Mary pass for ABC. In 1968, the struggling network was mired in last place in the ratings. As the political conventions approached, ABC needed something to shake up the sagging news division against venerable Walter Cronkite at CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC. What executives dreamed up was a series of nightly face-offs between two erudite intellectuals who happened to loathe each other — Vidal, author, playwright, liberal lion, and relative by marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy; and Buckley, arch-conservative polemicist and founder of the influential magazine National Review.
“Everybody was making fun of [ABC] for it,” said Neville, who won an Oscar in 2014 for his acclaimed documentary about backup singers, “20 Feet From Stardom.” “They were kind of the laughingstock of the news media and criticized for abdicating their journalistic responsibilities,”
However, it proved to be a winning combination. The antipathy between Buckley and Vidal was palpable and while the debates were substantive, they devolved into a series of personal attacks. It culminated in a vitriolic exchange toward the end of the tumultuous Democratic National Convention. As Chicago police clashed with antiwar protesters and blood was spilled, Vidal and Buckley battled over the direction of the country and the cause of its seeming decline. Vidal baited Buckley by calling him a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley fired back, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” The network brass fumed, but the ratings skyrocketed.
“In the landscape of television in that day,” Neville said, “it was really unheard of, because civility was still kind of prized. Now it’s almost old hat. It’s what you get every day on cable news. Although even today, it’s not as personal [as it was for Buckley and Vidal].”
The film argues that those vituperative exchanges made for riveting television and led to the rise of point-counterpoint debate as a force in news programming starting in the 1970s.
“The lesson the news [divisions] took away from it was: It’s not that you need two intellectuals on TV fighting with each other for ratings. You just need two people fighting with each other for ratings,” Neville said.
“Best of Enemies” blends debate and archival footage, including a glimpse of Vidal at his cliffside mansion in Ravello, Italy; interviews with the likes of Dick Cavett, Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus, and media personalities Frank Rich, Andrew Sullivan, and the late Christopher Hitchens; and actors John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer reading from the writings of Vidal and Buckley, respectively.
For contemporary viewers, the sight of two intellectuals — both original thinkers, neither a party hack — debating each other on TV may seem alien. But Vidal and Buckley were famous in a way that no intellectual is today.
“Gore was a playwright, and Buckley had a talk show [“Firing Line”] for 30 years, so he understood how to play a character on a medium,” Neville said. “Both of them understood the theatricality of [the debates] and that it was how you got your ideas across.”
Despite their divergent political philosophies and mutual enmity, Gordon says, “There was so much about them that was alike, in their backgrounds and their patrician demeanors. The mid-Atlantic accents, the haughty airs. In a way, they were drawn to each other over a period of time — like polar opposites that attract.”
Still, as Hitchens remarks in the film, “They really did despise each other.”
Buckley zinged Vidal’s best-selling 1968 satirical novel, “Myra Breckinridge,” with its transgender main character, as “pornography,” while Vidal charged that Buckley, who never saw combat while in the Army, was “distorting his own military record.”
“I think they each thought the other was a demonic and corrosive force for society,” Gordon said, and “that their views were a catastrophic threat to the country.”
Indeed, the two men encapsulated the deep cultural clashes and political divisions of that era. For the filmmakers, the Vidal-Buckley confrontations also prefigured the poisonous state of our present civic discourse, with its heated soundbites and eye-bulging outrage.
“It’s about the sparks, not about the substance,” Neville said, of today’s talking heads.
Adds Gordon, “It’s really about raising the ire of the audience, much like a professional wrestling match. If the audience gets angry, then [the networks] get what they want. They want to raise people’s emotions, so it becomes an emotional issue rather than a well-considered intellectual issue.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.