Why would a 2015 audience want to see a documentary about televised political debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that occurred almost 50 years ago?
Because Best of Enemies brilliantly recreates the fascinating, edgy 1968 TV dialogues between two intelligent giants — articulate men with strongly held opposing political views. Their ideas still profoundly influence political discourse today.
Best of Enemies, which is showing at Landmark’s California Theatre in downtown Berkeley, is also an incisive snapshot of 1968, that iconic year in America, when the Vietnam War brought our political scene to its boiling point. TV footage of the Democratic convention in Chicago and the associated riots and police brutality made the public’s division about the Vietnam War impossible to be ignored.
The documentary also explores the ways in which the Buckley/Vidal debates changed forever television coverage of current events. They were the forerunner of opinion television journalism that has resulted today in angry “talking heads” and vituperative agenda-driven networks for whom the truth is an often an afterthought.
William Frank Buckley, Jr. (1925 –2008) was a Yale-educated editor of the influential politically conservative magazine “National Review,” host of the television interview show “Firing Line” (1966–1999), author of a widely read nationally syndicated newspaper column and many polemics, including his first book, published in 1951, “God and Man at Yale,” in which he argued that the university was forcing students to adopt liberalism. He also co-authored a book defending U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist House on Un-American Activities Committee.
Based on his two years in the C.I.A., where he served under a lifelong friend, E. Howard Hunt, of Watergate infamy, Buckley wrote numerous spy novels. A practicing Catholic, Buckley chose to continue to say Mass in Latin long after the Pope disbanded the practice. He spoke brilliantly, with an eastern/English upper class drawl and had an enviably wide vocabulary. His nephew is political talk show host Bill O’Reilly.
Gore Vidal, grandson of the blind U.S. Democratic Senator Thomas Pryor Gore from Oklahoma, served in Washington, D. C. as his grandfather’s page and assistant. He skipped college, enlisting instead in the Army during World War II. The second novel he published, “The City and the Pillar” (1948) caused a moralistic sensation because it involved a gay relationship. Vidal became a celebrated and prolific writer of novels about America and American history including the great reads, “Burr” and “Lincoln,” as well as the controversial 1968 satiric novel, “Myra Breckenridge” about a drama school owned by a transsexual man.
His novels, essays, screenplays and stage plays, including “The Best Man: A Play about Politics” were widely read, seen and admired. A patrician, a gadfly, an acerbic wit, a public intellectual, a self-proclaimed “born-again atheist,” a relative by marriage to Jackie Kennedy, Gore Vidal remained in the public eye throughout his life. He lived for many years in a villa on the Amalfi coast of Italy with his partner of 53 years.
ABC was the least popular of the three television networks that dominated the TV airways in 1968. As a “shot in the dark” to boost ratings, the ABC news division decided to try airing the Buckley/Vidal debates as part of their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. The skillful debates and erudition turned the program into an overnight sensation. But their mutual antipathy was always just below the surface, until one night when it boiled over on national TV into a now famous ad hominem attack and threat of violence.
But, to learn more about the blow-up, you’ll have to watch Best of Enemies, which I strongly recommend you do. Not only does this riveting documentary skillfully portray the debates, it also deftly examines how the debates affected Vidal’s and Buckley’s personal lives and the future of political discourse in general.