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Buckley Against Vidal

“Do you care to read the context or shall I cram it down your throat?”

— William F. Buckley Jr.

Context matters in the coruscating new documentary “Best of Enemies.” Why should today’s moviegoers care about a long-ago televised clash of political debaters? Because the debaters in question happened to be William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, two of the most articulate intellectual exponents of the political right and left, and because their clash would have enduring repercussions for the combatants and, arguably, for the nature of media commentary ever since.

In the summer of 1968, ABC News, desperate to change its cellar-dwelling status in the television ratings, abandoned the time-honored format of continuous coverage of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. Instead, the network would air a nightly hour-and-a-half series of highlights anchored by a debate between opposing public intellectuals. ABC paid Buckley and Vidal $10,000 apiece to appear in 10 debates, split between the GOP convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic convention in Chicago.

In choosing Buckley and Vidal, ABC was aiming for maximal controversy. For one thing, the ideological distance between the two men was considerably greater than the distance between the two parties in those days. Buckley was the founder of the modern conservative movement, which regarded the Republican Party much as pirates would regard a merchant ship to be boarded, while the bestselling novelist Vidal by 1968 had come to identify with the radical left that viewed the Democratic Party as one more establishment to be overthrown. And both men, though they seldom met in person, loathed each other.

Vidal saw Buckley as an anti-democratic reactionary pushing the country toward destruction, a danger to the Republic whom Vidal had a responsibility to stop. Buckley for his part was appalled by Vidal. He wasn’t so much threatened by his debate partner’s open bisexuality—his wife’s best friends tended to be gay men—or Vidal’s extreme left-wing political positions, which he thought predictable. But Buckley viewed Vidal’s multimillion-selling novel Myra Breckenridge, with its transsexual heroine and celebration of polymorphic perversion, as genuinely corrosive. It was a “crazed” assault, he wrote, on “traditional, humane sexual morality: on the family as the matrix of society: on the survival of heroism, on the very idea of heroism.” Buckley considered Vidal “the devil,” in the words of Vidal’s biographer Fred Kaplan: “He represented everything that was going to moral hell, that was degenerative about the country.”

And yet, as the documentary emphasizes, both men were in many ways curiously alike. Both were wealthy, erudite, prep school trained and classically educated society fixtures with languid lockjaw accents, who seemed to embody the WASP upper class. Yet in fact both were outsiders and critics of that establishment—Buckley because of his conservatism and his father’s Texas frontier origins, Vidal because of his sexuality and iconoclastic instincts—in an era of centrist consensus.

Both men had political aspirations that were cut short when they ran up against more skillful establishment politicians. Buckley lost to liberal Republican John Lindsay in the 1965 New York City mayoral race, even though he pointed the way toward the GOP future by attracting angry white ethnics from the city’s outer boroughs. Vidal came from a distinguished Democratic political lineage—his grandfather was a senator from Oklahoma—and garnered his in-law John F. Kennedy’s endorsement in his 1960 New York congressional campaign. Unfortunately for his political career, he fell out with the Kennedy clan when he clashed with Bobby, whom he improbably regarded as a presidential rival.


Vidal’s 1960 play “The Best Man” (later made into a 1964 movie) epitomized the mid-century Democratic hope that the masses would recognize their proper ruler in a witty, progressive, Adlai Stevenson-esque patrician. (Similar liberal wish-fulfillment resurfaced decades later in the television miniseries “The West Wing,” and it must have been sweet vindication for Vidal when he was cast as a venerable Democratic senator in the 1992 film “Bob Roberts.”) As Buckley’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus observes in “The Best of Enemies,” Buckley and Vidal “were circling each other from very early on. Why? Partly because each one saw in the other a kind of exaggerated image of his own anxious version of himself.”

Buckley had told ABC that the one person he did not want to face on television in the 1968 debates was Gore Vidal. The reasons why quickly became apparent when Vidal attempted to take down Buckley, not only as a debater but as a human being. While Buckley spent the week before the debate sailing to Cozumel, Vidal hired a researcher in the hopes of painting Buckley’s magazine National Review as racist and anti-Semitic. Vidal even prepared zingers to use against Buckley that, the film reveals, he previewed with reporters. The debates between the two men had little to do with the issues that surfaced at the party conventions but rather boiled down to vicious and extremely personal exchanges.

The film heralds each round of debate with a bell and a title card, and the pugilistic intensity with which Buckley and Vidal went at each other is still mesmerizing even at a remove of almost half a century. Tanenhaus isn’t exaggerating when he calls Buckley the greatest debater and Vidal the greatest talker of their generation. Both made use of the full amplitude of the English language, and part of the pleasure of the film is hearing Vidal mocking his opponent’s “slightly Latinate and inaccurate style” and Buckley riposting “Such balderdash!” thisarticleappears copy [1]

The debates also took place at a moment of high political drama, not long after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, with the Vietnam War raging, riots convulsing the nation’s cities, and Chicago’s police force gassing and clubbing demonstrators outside the Democratic convention. “Best of Enemies” makes good use of a host of talking heads who provide historical context, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Buckley’s younger brother Reid, and former TV host Dick Cavett. And, as several of the commentators observe, the issues fought out in the 1968 elections prefigured our present-day political divisions over sexual morality, race relations, crime, police violence, income inequality, and American imperialism.

The film does not, however, probe deeply into these matters. Neither did Buckley and Vidal in their debates, where they were more concerned with scoring points than learning anything from each other. Vidal scornfully dismissed Buckley’s suggestion that “freedom breeds inequality,” even though a similar proposition can be found in some of his own novels; Buckley attacked Vidal’s criticisms of the military campaign in Vietnam despite his own private reservations about the war. (“I am frankly delighted that you are 4F,” Buckley had written to a young friend in 1965, “inasmuch as I cannot see any purpose in joining the American Army at this moment. Some other war, perhaps.”) The filmmakers generally play fair with both sides, with the conspicuous exception of one scene that seems to show Buckley laughing gleefully over his alleged contributions to the persistence of racial segregation.

Tensions between the antagonists built up over the course of the conventions until finally erupting at the ninth debate, which took place after a night of clashes between police and protestors in Chicago. When Vidal compared Mayor Richard Daley’s city to a Soviet regime, Buckley objected to the attempt to “infer from individual and despicable acts of violence from Chicago policemen a case for implicit totalitarianism in the American system.” The discussion degenerated from there until Vidal lashed out at Buckley with the insult that “As far as I am concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi that I can think of is yourself.” ABC moderator Howard K. Smith stuttered out “Let’s—let’s not call names,” but too late:

Buckley:  Now listen, you queer, stop calling me
     a crypto-Nazi…

Smith:   Let’s stop… Let’s…

Buckley: …or I’ll sock you in the goddamn

Vidal: Oh, Bill, you’re so extraordinary!

Smith: Gentlemen, let’s stop calling names…

Buckley: …and you’ll stay plastered.

The filmmakers contend that the significance of the Buckley-Vidal flamewar is that it taught the networks to value supercharged ideological debate over straight news coverage. The Buckley-Vidal debates vaulted ABC over its rivals; no network carried gavel-to-gavel coverage of a political convention ever again. The winning formula, as Dick Cavett puts it in the film, became “Get Mr. Pro and Mr. Con, have them argue, and that’s enlightenment, that’s punditry.” There’s a straight line, in this view, from Buckley-Vidal to today’s cable news shoutfests.

But the would-be pundits we see on television now are dumber and duller than Buckley and Vidal ever were. They’re likelier to sprout wings than to invoke Pericles, as Vidal did in warning against the overextension of empire, or to flaunt whatever sesquipedalian vocabulary they might possess, as Buckley did at every opportunity.

Indeed, the Buckley-Vidal debate still seems unique for its sheer emotionalism and the odd quasi-sexual dynamics noticed by some contemporary observers. At one point Vidal referred to National Review as a magazine whose name would not pass his lips, to which Buckley responded, “We know that you like nothing to sully your lips.” “You will eat it first,” Vidal replied with a smirk. God knows what the 10 million viewers watching the debate made of that exchange. And Buckley’s infamous outburst was a rare televised example of loss of control, of the sort that some people seek out in auto races or certain types of pornography.

Buckley almost never lost his cool and rarely resorted to personal insult. In fact, he made very few permanent enemies; his geniality, like Ronald Reagan’s, was key to his political success. The debates haunted Buckley, and he even tendered Vidal an apology in a long essay he wrote about them, while Vidal reveled in having “left the bleeding corpse of William F. Buckley Jr. on the floor of a convention hall in Chicago” and mounted a photoset of the debates above his bathtub like a safari pelt. In the end, the episode on which “Best of Enemies” pivots was an anomaly in Buckley’s long career. It makes for compelling viewing, but ultimately it was a moment of sound and fury, signifying less than the filmmakers think. 

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author, most recently, of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party [2].

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Buckley Against Vidal"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 19, 2015 @ 2:48 am

Bill Buckley was unique, and there’s much to commend him, but I saw the episode of Firing Line where Noam Chomsky’s superior grasp of the facts left Bill who, at ease in debate, usually archly inserted tongue to cheek desultorily, instead turned it into a repetitive nervous tic as Chomsky got the best of him.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 19, 2015 @ 8:11 am

“…The issues fought out in the 1968 elections prefigured our present-day political divisions over sexual morality, race relations, crime, police violence, income inequality, and American imperialism. The film does not, however, probe deeply into these matters. Neither did Buckley and Vidal in their debates, where they were more concerned with scoring points than learning anything from each other…The Buckley-Vidal flamewar…taught the networks to value supercharged ideological debate over straight news coverage. The Buckley-Vidal debates vaulted ABC over its rivals; no network carried gavel-to-gavel coverage of a political convention ever again. The winning formula, as Dick Cavett puts it in the film, became “Get Mr. Pro and Mr. Con, have them argue, and that’s enlightenment, that’s punditry.” There’s a straight line, in this view, from Buckley-Vidal to today’s cable news shoutfests.”

In 1958 Edward R. Murrow still spoke hopefully about the potential of television: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

The Buckley-Vidal “debates” pushed television further toward the “wires and lights in a box” outcome.

#3 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On August 19, 2015 @ 9:56 am

I so want to see this movie. I’m a big fan of both Vidal and Buckley. Even when I disagreed with what they said, I still loved the way they said it. I would love to see two public intellectuals go at each other during the GOP and Democratic conventions in 2016, as much I would like to see a Trump- Sanders battle royal (instead of the inevitable, dispiriting, humdrum, Clinton-Bush snooze fest you just know and dread is perhaps coming).

The Buckley-Vidal debates have a grim legacy though. Their debate was the germ of all the silly, inane talking points spouting idiots we have on cable news today. Instead of Vidal and Buckley, we have Bill O’Reilly and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And it’s all loyalty to the Republicratic duopoly uber alles.

#4 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On August 19, 2015 @ 10:33 am

I recall that encounter between Buckley and Chomsky. I also saw Chomsky waste Alan Dershowitz in a debate over a proposed two-state solution to the Palestinian Question. Chomsky was a keen intellect and a formidable debater–as both Buckley and Dershowitz would learn to their chagrin.

#5 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On August 19, 2015 @ 11:30 am

The Murrow comments came, I believe, on the occasion of the PBS inaugural in 1962. PBS used to air Buckely’s “Firing Line”, one of those very shows which served to “illuminate”. On those occasions the viewer saw Buckley at his best. A pity that it was Buckley at his worst which would pave the way to what now passes for news these days–which is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from professional wrestling.

#6 Comment By Dennis Brislen On August 19, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

Bread and circuses. Mencken alive, would have been in ecstasy with the material they presented him.

Vidal at his best, unlike Buckley, understood that infiltration by shadow government would place liberty on life support.

#7 Comment By Mr. Libertarian On August 19, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

@ Connecticut Farmer

Greetings from a fellow Connecticut Yankee.

Anyway, Chomsky is no doubt a formidable intellectual. But I watched him debate Michel Foucault. Foucault got the better of him I think.

#8 Comment By Franz Liebkind On August 19, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

1. Buckley certainly did advance the cause of Southern segregation in the 1950s–at least for a certain caste of faux-genteel racist conservatives. From the first National Review issue published after the Brown decision: “National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.”

2. In a recent NYRB Garry Wills soundly refutes the notion that the Buckley-Vidal debates and their era constituted some kind if TV golden age, comparing them very unfavorably with such recent fare as Stephen Colbert and John Stewart:

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 19, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

@ Connecticut Farmer:

Just for the sake of accuracy, the Murrow quote is, indeed, from 1958 (October 15th), pulled from a keynote address Edward R. Murrow delivered at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in Chicago.


In reprinting the complete text of the Murrow speech PBS acknowledged that the Murrow quote was from 1958:


This is the complete October 15, 1958 Murrow speech:


This is the complete 1958 Murrow speech recreated in the film “Good Night and Good Luck” (released in 2005, George Clooney as Fred Friendly, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow):

#10 Comment By David Naas On August 19, 2015 @ 3:50 pm

Alas, they were two of the last of the Public Intellectual class, a species which has virtually disappeared from public discourse, save in obscure “little” magazines like TAC and TIC on the ‘Conservative” side, and perhaps one other on the “Left”.

But, the People don’t want “public intellectuals” who work out their ideas in front of everyone. The People want certainties shouted with a full bull throated roar from the tallest pulpit available.

#11 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 20, 2015 @ 3:38 am

To his credit, Buckley eventually turned against both the Iraq-cum-Middle East-mother-of-all-permanent-War and the War on Drugs, two now permanent excuses for expanding national security state tyranny.

Probably both are now rolling in their graves over what is the revolting development that no genuine liberal or conservative could countenance – only neocons and neoliberals.

#12 Comment By Russell On August 20, 2015 @ 4:46 pm

Trying to debate the man who invented transformational grammar was and remains the penultimate Bad Idea.

#13 Comment By JT Barbarese On August 20, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

I remember those debates partly because I idolized both men. Buckley around the same time had Ginsberg on ‘Firing Line,’ where A.G. read ‘Wales Visitation’ and WB proved that he had an ear for verbal music. Vidal is one of the past century’s great essayists and I was already reading his work in NYRB. Both carried on a triangulated friendship with another personal eminence, Norman Mailer. All three reminded me of a trio of teachers, three Jebbies with intersecting and difficult opinions, who would shred each other in conversation and then sit down for lunch. Buckley’s explosive response in debate #9 (I think it was) was disappointing, but back then, except for his contributions to the unreadable NR (I subscribed to Ramparts), I read him, Mailer and Vidal with an intensity that constituted a real education. Their reciprocal loathing was hoplessly confused with a wild envy of/ interest in the opponent–like Pitt’s making a show of storming out of parliament as the great Burke rose to speak, and then, concealed in a outside corridor, listening to what he couldn’t help listen to.

#14 Comment By Michael On August 20, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

Vidal essentially stalked Buckley in television and print media from the early 60s. He baited Buckley on shows such as David Susskind and on Jack Paar’s show. Buckley’s account of his extended ambush on the Paar show appears in one of his early anthologies, “Rumbles Left and Right”. A very funny account of the workings of elite media, still on display today.

#15 Comment By Mitchell Freedman On August 21, 2015 @ 12:18 am

I have seen on YouTube the infamous debate between Vidal and Buckley (I watched it in real time as a precocious 11 year old and frankly remember nothing but the noise). After the recent viewing, I feel there is some injustice to only quoting the part where Vidal calls Buckley a crypto-Nazi. In the video footage when shown from the start, one sees the slow build up of vitriol between the two men. Then Howard K. Smith jumps in against Vidal and compares raising a Nazi flag in a rally in World War II to a couple of young protestors raising an NLF flag during the demonstrations. Vidal points out that many folks around the world believe the NLF was correct to want to take part in South Vietnamese government elections and that if it is strange in Chicago to hear such a view, that is “too bad.” Buckley then agrees with Smith’s argument about comparing the protestors’ actions to raising a Nazi flag and adds he sees no reason to be kind to protestors who support people who would kill American servicemen. He then compounds that by personally attacking Vidal, saying that of course Vidal would support such a thing. That is a deep insult to Vidal, who fought in World War II against Japanese war lords. Vidal heard it and immediately said the only “crypto-Nazi is you,” meaning Buckley.

I share the view that despite my wanting to believe that the Buckley-Vidal debate is a debate of giants, the debate is decent but is not superior and maybe not as good as some of what we have seen on Bill Maher or what we have seen on Stewart and Colbert this past decade or more. I also state my bias that I think Vidal was America’s greatest essayist of the 20th Century and that Buckley’s show Firing Line was one of the outstanding political talk shows of all time. I favor Vidal over Buckley in terms of depth of knowledge of American and world history and literature, but recognize Buckley’s ability and agility in crafting argument.

#16 Comment By Damoj On August 21, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

The US establishment was and is continues to be rotten to the core, but Buckley was good at playing bad hands well. He had to defend the forces of order and the idea of empire, and he did so intelligently and critically…

…but he was still wrong insofar as he thought state reform could occur through intellectual means only.