BEST OF ENEMIES (2015)
Written and directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville.
Featuring Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jr., Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, & the voices of John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammar.
When I was an impressionable young man, my father duly impressed upon me the notion of what used to be called the “gentleman scholar.” That is to say, that while one is in the world, one ought to make some attempt at learning a little something about it. Expertise in some of the narrows, yes, but at least a broad knowledge across the disciplines; a concept outmoded by the time I was thirty, distinctly patrician and Dead White Male-ish, to be sure, but – in my case – extraordinarily useful. And if I may paraphrase Plato, if I failed in my goal to know, at least I learned how much I didn’t.
I found myself, in watching the extraordinary documentary Best of Enemies, filled with conflicting thoughts and emotions. At a surface level, it was impossible not to be seduced by the elocution, erudition, and high camp of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., nor to resist the torrent of diction, pitch, and punchlines. It was likewise impossible (for me, at least) not to feel a bit of nostalgia at the idea that people on television could once speak like that, to ten million people, and hope to be understood. Vidal, with his Hollywood sheen, famous friends, and brilliant toe-stepping between the outrageous (Myra Breckinridge) and cynical patriotism (the biographies Burr and Lincoln, among others), in dubious battle versus Buckley, the spokesman for the one percent, anti-black, anti-jewish, anti-gay, speaking the truth as given by the CIA.
CIA? We’ll come back to that.
The documentary begins at the invitation, by third-place network ABC, to Vidal and Buckley to joust at both the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. With nothing to lose, the network broke from the usual form of simply shooting the convention in a straightforward way, instead inviting commentary from the two talking heads in a manner that would soon become familiar to us all, in form if not efficacy. They were both perfectly suited to the medium and the resulting skirmishes were entertaining, occasionally enlightening, and – in the later debates – viciously personal. That would, alas, become familiar too. However, despite their enmity and distance on “the issues,” which in this case was the looming police state represented by Richard Nixon just after Bobby Kennedy was murdered, it is striking how similar Vidal and Buckley were, at least in upbringing and articulation. ABC would not have invited Bobby Seale to offer remarks; indeed, this has not changed much in terms of mainstream television. A national network will only allow thought that presumes the existence of the current capitalist state.
The pairing proved incendiary; Vidal and Buckley, as political analysts, made superb television. Whether they actually participated in an actual debate – well, it’s unlikely that either would be convinced by the other’s points. What did happen in actual fact is that Vidal described Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi” (although how crypto he actually was, is itself debatable) which caused the latter to fly into a rage – in which Buckley lashed back that Vidal was “queer.” The entire last act of the documentary is consumed with this outburst, and rightly so, as it was a harbinger of television to come.
And that, ultimately, is what this documentary tells us. Of all the great and terrible events that accompanied 1968, the Vidal-Buckley debates mostly were prescient about presentation. ABC’s ratings doubled, and soon programs featuring point-counterpoint and issue-oriented debate filled the airwaves. From that grew CNN and Crossfire and now today’s Fox News shows like Bill O’Reilly. The features that arose out of Vidal-Buckley were lobotomized by comparison, however, and the toxic gibbons who run them lack magniloquence as well as sense. Our culture may rebel at the thought of a classical education, but there are worse things to have in an age of information; one imagines even Buckley would be nauseated at the prospect of speaking with the likes of Sean Hannity.
Oh yes, and speaking of CIA…while the documentary does bring some of the details of the traumatic 1960s, including Gore Vidal’s disagreements with Bobby Kennedy, it does not go into detail regarding Buckley’s CIA career. A Skull and Bones graduate of Yale in 1950, Buckley created the National Review with William J. Casey (who would later become CIA director under Ronald Reagan) and other CIA schleppers. In addition, Buckley was a good friend of notorious CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, directly involved in the Watergate break-in and implicated in the JFK assassination. Buckley went so far as to write the foreword for Hunt’s book American Spy. Which is precisely what Buckley was – a spy, a field operative among the intelligentsia of the American Right. His job, done brilliantly well, was to spur a reactionary conservativism that promoted militaristic and colonial values, whose malodorous effects linger to this day. In part, American Spy detailed the many propaganda assets and front groups used to spread “American values” around the world. Buckley was unquestionably one of its greatest assets.
For his part, Buckley received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former CIA Director George H. W. Bush.
Writing later of the debates, Vidal said of him that “…I set out to establish him not only as a war-lover but as a totalitarian, in the general sense of someone with an authoritarian disposition who wishes to use the state for such ends as placing the ‘chronic welfare cases’ of New York City in ‘rehabilitation centers’ outside the city…” in his essay A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr. in his (since-banned) Esquire article in 1969. This was not hard to do, since Buckley had written enough in his own National Review to build his own credentials. As Kevin Schultz observed in his Salon article:
He didn’t stop there. In 1957, Buckley wrote National Review’s most infamous editorial, entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Is the white community in the South, he asked, “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?” His answer was crystal clear: “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Buckley cited unfounded statistics demonstrating the superiority of white over black, and concluded that, “it is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” He added definitively: “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”
Best of Enemies does an excellent job in its narrow space of showing how the Vidal-Buckley encounter had both personal consequences for both men and, regrettably, for television news of the future. If it doesn’t delve too deeply into the intelligence background of one of its subjects, that is understandable given its scope – and yet that background informs the proceedings. Because Buckley was never a lone interloper promoting Republican values, whatever those might be, but was indeed the crypto-fascist that Gore Vidal identified. A crypto-fascist who won. After all, without Bobby, the Democratic Convention erupted into a disaster, masterfully captured by Haxell Wexler in Medium Cool. Nixon was elected. The Vietnam War escalated. The nightmare continued until Reagan brought forth “morning in America,” which turned out to be the nightmare, doubled down upon.
In his later writings, the documentary tells us, Vidal became “shrill.” Perhaps because he continued to question received wisdom, including about the 9/11 attacks, and did so from his uniquely insider perspective. For my own part I found him as perceptive as ever, and his voice is sorely missed as we all have become unwilling witnesses to the collapse of the republic.
This is Joe Green's blog.