Two things wise and educate people are advised not to discuss are religion and politics. The reason that wise and educated people are advised to avoid such topics is simple; everyone has their own beliefs. As foolish as these beliefs may seem to others, wise and educated people hold on to these beliefs with amazing devotion, believing these beliefs with such ferocity that anyone who doesn’t hold these beliefs to be self-evident are completely foolish.
While this form of rhetoric—if it can be called that—is in high demand, it is also damning. Every night, TV sets across this great nation tune in to cable channels where so-called experts on this side or that side of an issue yell at one another in a foolish attempt to bend the viewer’s view on the topic at hand. It makes for good theater, but does it move the dial on public discourse? Probably not. But then again, television is in the entertainment business, not the revolution.
But if it doesn’t work now, did it ever work? Or was it all for ratings? That line of thinking is what drives the new documentary, Best of Enemies, the story of the 1968 televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.
There were three TV networks in 1968 with NBC and CBS neck and neck in the lead. ABC brought up the caboose with third place, which as one reporter claims, “Would’ve been fourth, but there were only three.”
Up to this point, presidential nomination conventions were covered with a hands-off, democratic approach of wall-to-wall coverage. But ABC needed something different if they were going to stand a chance. The answer, give the public something the other networks wouldn’t, commentary from two of America’s greatest intellectuals. On the right, the founder of National Review: William F. Buckley. From the left, the self-proclaimed biographer of America: Gore Vidal.
What was ABC hoping for? Ratings, and boy did they get ‘em. These ten “debates” between Buckley and Vidal were anything but civil and anything but a debate. They were pure entertainment, two men shouting the other one down with clean efficiency and ruthless fury. Both had a deep-seated distrust for the other, believing that the other’s opinion could be disastrous for the American public, and they tried as hard as they could to drown the other man down.
It worked in an odd and unexpected way. Vidal won, sort of, when he managed to get Buckley to crack by calling him a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley, visually upset, used a homosexual slur and threatened to punch Vidal out on live television. This was the turning moment in the debates, one you can see on Vidal’s face when he realizes that he’s clearly won. Returning to this moment years later, Buckley is clearly rattled by it. Whether this guilt was because he let his guard down and let his true colors show or because he did it on national television remains unspoken. It is most likely because Vidal finally found the raw spot and rubbed the salt it. Buckley never managed to rattle Vidal in the same way.
Best of Enemies finds its strength by not taking sides with either Buckley or Vidal and presenting each factually, faithfully recreating these debates and the context leading up to them. But it is how the success of these debates that makes Best of Enemies all the more relevant. Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon know that ABC, in a shameless attempt at ratings and viewership, pointed the way to the cable news of talking—sometimes yelling—heads of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN.
It’s also a cruel reminder that as of Aug. 2015, Americans have 15 months of this nonsense to look forward to before the election of the 45th President. Maybe “nonsense” isn’t the way to look at it. Maybe the takeaway from Best of Enemies is that you can fight it, but you can’t beat it. Might as well enjoy the carnival along the way.
Best of Enemies (2015)
Produced and Directed by: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon
Starring: William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 87 minutes, Opens August 14, 2015