Even if you’re the sort who believes there can be no such thing as too much political coverage, it can’t hurt to cast a fond glance back to 1968, when only three networks — NBC, CBS, and the perennial laggard ABC — jockeyed for the attention of the American public. In the summer of ’68, as the Democratic and Republican conventions drew near, ABC News officials wondered how they might boost their sorry ratings. The event they conceived was risky: Over the course of the conventions, two of the most respected public intellectuals of the time, cool-as-a-cuke conservative commentator and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. and dryly erudite novelist and essayist Gore Vidal, would meet for a series of ten nightly debates. Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s sharp little documentary Best of Enemies details how that came together, and what happened after the fur flew.
Vidal and Buckley hated each other long before ABC brought them into this figurative boxing ring, but the clips collected by Neville and Gordon reveal something feral about these two extravagantly articulate, upper-crusty men; they eye one another like suspicious forest animals, each smelling something foul in the other. Neville and Gordon weave bits of backstory into their account of this great ferret summit:
Vidal biographer Fred Kaplan and Buckley scholar Sam Tanenhaus both show up to cheer on their respective home teams; New York magazine columnist Frank Rich, sociologist and political writer Todd Gitlin, and NPR journalist Brooke Gladstone, among others, fill in the political and cultural context.
No one points out the obvious, perhaps because no one needs to: Considering these two men were deemed towering intellectual talents, what they say in these debates isn’t nearly as interesting as how they say it. They touch on issues like civil rights and the impending ascendance of Ronald Reagan, but mostly they just draw loops of invective around each other. Buckley’s lower lip curls in distaste whenever he mentions Vidal’s potboiler novel Myra Breckinridge, which he does often. Vidal has his slingshot loaded with his own bons mots, at one point calling Buckley “the Marie Antoinette of the right.” Their patrician bickering is amusing enough for a while, though their obsessive mutual hatred comes to seem like the droning pattern of an unhealthy marriage, of little interest to outsiders. When Vidal fires a cannon, an insult that sends Buckley right over the edge, Buckley shoots back with an ugly homosexual slur and keeps right on going, sailing into a diatribe he’ll regret for the rest of his life, as Vidal looks on with a kitty-cat smile.
It’s fascinating. It’s horrible. It’s fascinatingly horrible. It’s also, as Gladstone points out, a sterling example of the power that television, when it was still a “public square,” could have. Best of Enemies was made by two people who might be better known in music circles than in political ones: Gordon wrote the extraordinary 1995 It Came From Memphis, a chronicle of the city’s great musical eccentrics; Neville’s 2013 documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom lauded underappreciated backup singers. You could say Buckley and Vidal made music, too: They slashed at each other like duelists, crossing swords with a metallic clang that also left a metallic aftertaste.
Best of Enemies
Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Opens July 31, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema