A surprise movie hit this summer does not feature superheroes or spies or cops. It stars two dead intellectuals, known for their prodigious literary output and their skill at oratorical combat. The Best of Enemies is a documentary about the ten debates in 1968 on ABC News between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal.

ABC News, the perennial third place ratings finisher back when there were three broadcasters, decided to gamble on a new format for covering the political conventions. Rather than providing comprehensive gavel-to-gavel coverage, the network offered just a few hours of coverage each night, followed by a debate between the two eloquent spokesmen for the Left and Right.buckley

According to the movie poster, the Buckley-Vidal confrontation was an epochal event: “2 Men. 10 Debates. Television would never be the same.” A.O. Scott, in the New York Times, agrees:

There’s no doubt that the debates were a harbinger of cable-news shouting matches to come, as television journalism transformed itself from democracy’s buttoned-up superego into its snarling id.

Another commentator considers the debates “a turning point, the moment when the networks, the press, the pundits, and even average Americans first realized their taste for political bloodsport. A terrible beauty had been born ….”

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The rhetoric evokes Alamogordo, as if the critics had just witnessed the first terribly beautiful mushroom cloud. Just what happened to justify such hyperbole?

In 1968, William Buckley and Gore Vidal were both 42 years old and at the top of their game. Buckley had almost single-handedly transformed the conservative movement from a stodgy, starchy sect into a dynamic political and cultural force. His National Review magazine and Firing Line television program were vehicles for his irreverent style of critiquing liberalism. The year before, Time Magazine had featured him on its cover with the title “Conservatism Can Be Fun.”

Gore Vidal, stepbrother to Jacqueline Kennedy and confidante to her husband, was a widely read essayist, screenwriter, and novelist. His 1948 breakout novel The City and the Pillar presented homosexuality in starkly honest terms. At the time of the debates, his bestselling social satire Myra Breckinridge had been made into a movie starring Raquel Welch. Like Buckley, Vidal seemed to be all over the media. He appeared to follow his own advice to “never turn down an opportunity to have sex or to be on television.”

The men prepared for their encounter differently. Buckley went off on a two-week sailing trip, as if to advertise his careless disregard for his adversary. Vidal hired a researcher and boned up on every extreme and potentially embarrassing line ever published in National Review. He also jotted down, and practiced delivering, ad hominem zingers, to be launched at appropriate moments, as if they were inspired ad libs.

From the first debate, their different tactics emerged. Vidal referred to Buckley’s “neuroses,” and began an incessant assault on Buckley personally. Buckley responded in kind to these attacks, usually by casting aspersion on the “pornographic” Myra Breckinridge. But one can gather from the overall tone of the clashes that Buckley was more interested in attacking Vidal on the issues, while Vidal was more interested in attacking Buckley the man.

Through the first eight encounters, no matter how heated the rhetoric, both men managed to retain an air of cool patrician calm, mixing their disdain with a pretended indifference.

In the ninth debate, Vidal’s strategy of constant personal attacks bore fruit. The previous night protesters, some carrying Viet Cong flags, had rioted and the Chicago Police had cracked down hard. Tear gas wafted into the convention center. Outside Buckley’s hotel, demonstrators were shouting anti-war and anti-American slogans, keeping him awake.  The next day, he was cranky.

The two men debated the police reaction to the protesters. Buckley, choosing conservative values of law and order over party affiliation, defended the Democrat Mayor Daley. Then the moderator Howard K. Smith, who heretofore had said little and moderated less, spoke up and unintentionally ignited the fire for which the debates will always be remembered.

SMITH: Mr. Vidal, wasn’t it a provocative act to try to raise the Vietcong flag in the park in the film we just saw? Wouldn’t that invite — raising the Nazi flag during World War II would have had similar consequences?

VIDAL: You must realize what some of the political issues are here. There are many people in the United States who happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their own country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad, but I assume that the point of the American democracy —

BUCKLEY: — and some people were pro-Nazi —

VIDAL: — is you can express any view you want–

BUCKLEY: — and some people were pro-Nazi–

VIDAL: Shut up a minute!

BUCKLEY: No, I won’t. Some people were pro-Nazi and, and the answer is they were well treated by people who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care–

VIDAL: As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that–

SMITH: Let’s, let’s not call names–

VIDAL: Failing that, I can only say that —

BUCKLEY: Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered —

SMITH: Gentlemen!

Then, according to Dick Cavett, “the network nearly shat.”

Reviewers have concluded that the spectacle of the aristocratic William F. Buckley, Jr., descending to the level of a barroom brawler, marked the end of an era. Mother Jones heralded it as “the downfall of political debate.”

Well, not really. Political debate is alive and well — perhaps too well — in the Republic. What the debates changed was a certain style.

Buckley and Vidal were brilliant prodigies, but what made them popular as polemicists was not the depth of their intellect but the facility of their wit. They were exemplars of what might be called the “aren’t I naughty?” tradition. It’s difficult to define the exact boundaries of this tradition, but, as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, one knows it when one sees it.

One can find it through the ages in literary circles. Voltaire demonstrated the tradition in his treatment of a critic’s letter. Remember, this was in the days before toilet paper or indoor plumbing, when nature’s call was answered in a tiny room. Voltaire wrote back to his critic: “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me.” Very naughty.

Sometimes, literary giants competed with each other to see who could be naughtier. Take the exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. Shaw: “Winston, I am sending you two tickets to the opening night of my new play. Take a friend — if you have one.” Churchill: “Sorry, I cannot make it to opening night. I’ll attend the second night — if there is one.”

One can find thousands of such examples, and it’s fun to do so. But these should serve to illustrate the method. It’s fencing with a touch so deft and light that the opponent needs a moment or two to realize he’s bleeding.

In the 1968 debates, Vidal “won” by forcing Buckley off the “aren’t I naughty?” game, and down to the “screw you, buddy” level — where it currently predominates on cable television and talk radio. But it was, at best, a victory short-lived.

Buckley realized his mistake and always regretted it. The documentary includes footage of an interview with Ted Koppel, shortly before Buckley’s death. Koppel airs the “sock you in the goddamn face” video. Buckley watches, uncharacteristically silent. When the show goes to commercial, Buckley remarks, sadly, that he had always assumed the tapes had been destroyed.

His regret was based on his realization that the exchange had created a mutant version of himself. Buckley was not a hater. He enjoyed lancing his opponents, but he did not loathe them. In fact, he enjoyed their company. The documentary shows glimpses of him debating Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and (as he was then known) Cassius Clay, with obvious relish. It does not mention, but perhaps should have, that he was friends with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and skiing buddies with John Kenneth Galbraith, both titans of the 1960s liberal establishment.

Gore Vidal, by contrast, was a hater, and a hater of titanic proportions. He did not subscribe to the Latin maxim  “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.” His hatreds carried no expiration dates. Of Truman Capote, he wrote: “Capote I truly loathed. The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house.” On hearing of Capote’s passing, he said: “A good career move.” Witty? Sure. But mainly, bad taste.

As he aged, Vidal’s detestations degenerated until they became demented. He claimed John McCain started the “rumor” of his imprisonment and torture. He accused George W. Bush of complicity in the 9/11 terrorism, contending that his administration knew of the attacks in advance but allowed them to happen so it could use them as a pretext for building a pipeline across Afghanistan.

Vidal’s hatred reached its nadir upon the death of Buckley in 2008. Newsweek had published the kind of favorable obituary which customarily follows the passing of celebrities, and which included some fond anecdotes by his son Christopher. Vidal responded venomously. (And barely coherently: he refers to the 1968 Republican convention in Chicago; of course, the Democrats met there.)  He complained that Newsweek had “taken a most benign view of what [sic] had been a hysterical queen (WFB).” He described Christopher as “creepy” and “brain-dead.” Then, with equivalent class, he signed off with: “RIP WFB — in hell.”

Vidal died four years later. No one could imagine Buckley, had he survived him, penning a comparable diatribe. In fact, in the early 80’s, Buckley allowed the publication in National Review of an essay by Thomas Mallon praising Vidal’s writing. Surely Vidal, had he been entrusted with the job of editing a magazine, never would have permitted a comparable tribute to Buckley.

Vidal’s tactics in 1968 may have succeeded in unearthing the darker side of Buckley. But they did not take the true measure of the man. Vidal, on the other hand, required no Buckley to bring his fouler traits to the surface. He could handle that job himself, thank you, and do so with unseemly gusto. If today’s political commentary is debased, it is because its practitioners are the progeny of Gore Vidal, not William Buckley.