The year 1968 was one of the most chaotic in American history, and the whole world was watching.
But one of its most significant episodes, acted out at the national political conventions, happened where almost no one had been watching before. It changed our news media, our public discourse and our politics, and its story is elevated to grand theater by directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon in their documentary “Best of Enemies.”
The ’68 conventions were the last to be broadcast gavel to gavel by television’s dominant networks: CBS, which had Walter Cronkite, and NBC, with anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. ABC was a distant third. “Would have been fourth, but there were only three,” says Richard Wald, former president of NBC News.
No. 3 could afford only 90 minutes of coverage each night. What it needed to lure viewers was a spectacle. What it concocted were 10 debates on the issues, at the end of each night’s coverage, between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal – five each at the GOP convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic gathering in Chicago.
And what began with ABC anchor Howard K. Smith discussing the “lady” delegates’ attire, at the first national conventions broadcast fully in color, culminated in one of the most shocking moments ever seen live on network television.
Buckley was editor of National Review, host of the “Firing Line” public affairs show and the prime apostle of American conservatism. His debate style was a rapier, slicing through an argument word by word; his wit, timing and cool were its equal. Asked by comic Henry Gibson on “Laugh-In” whether he always sat because he couldn’t think on his feet, his measured reply was: “It’s very hard for me to stand up … carrying the weight of what I know.”
Vidal was the liberal and libertine author of novels that broke ground in their portrayal of sexuality; his latest was the transgender satire “Myra Breckinridge.” He saw a new order coming, and violently. And he saw Buckley as the country’s greatest danger, a corporate tool bent on preserving an oppressive order.
Yet in many ways they seemed almost the same – pompous, erudite men of patrician accent and diction. “It was almost as if they were matter and anti-matter,” Buckley’s assistant, Linda Bridges, says in the film: parallel beings in opposite universes.
And each genuinely hated the other.
As “Best of Enemies” progresses, debate clips are woven with period scenes and commentators’ insights to build a compelling, foreshadowing narrative. ABC had its spectacle. What it didn’t have was a high-minded dialectic. Each man seemed simply to want to tear down the other; Vidal’s clear intent was to paint Buckley, once and for all, as pure evil.
Then came the ninth showdown, in Chicago.
‘The cherry bomb’
Buckley, a World War II veteran, loathed being compared with Nazis. Essayist Christopher Hitchens, in a posthumous appearance in the film, calls the Nazi card “the cherry bomb that was waiting to go off.”
Smith lit the fuse. Moderating a discussion of the Chicago riots protesting the Vietnam War, he asked about the difference between flying the Viet Cong colors and displaying a Nazi flag during World War II.
Vidal, after telling Buckley to “shut up a minute,” said to him: “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.”
Buckley, a man who customarily leaned away from his opponent in a pose of cool disdain, rose partway from his seat, moved toward Vidal and sneered, “Now listen, you queer: Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.”
Cut to Vidal. Smiling grimly, he sat frozen for a moment – half terrified, half smug in the satisfaction that he had done what he came to do.
“Best of Enemies” plays the moment as a demarcation in time – a cultural Zapruder sequence, replayed in slow motion and in grainy close-ups. It’s powerful, even elegant.
The denouement is each man’s struggle to live with that moment, to rationalize it, to win it after it was over – a challenge neither man really met.
So who won?
The film’s historical clips are fascinating, edited deftly by Triangle native Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden. And amid the recollections are keen insights on 1968’s harbingers of today – the dog-whistle calls for “law and order,” the conflicts over sexuality, the dominance of identity politics.
But it’s Buckley’s brother Reid, in only a few vignettes, who nearly steals the show. He’s incisive and engaging, with flashes of his brother’s wit, stripped of its malice.
Who won the debates? ABC.
Who lost? Maybe we all did. As the film makes clear, the Buckley-Vidal clash cemented the idea that politics is more about personal and cultural warfare than about lofty ideals, and it helped to make political discourse a commodity, to be packaged and sold as entertainment. What has changed since 1968 is little but the fracturing of the audience – the loss of communal experience of all sides in the great disputes.
“Best of Enemies” is a spellbinding story, a poignant tale of foibles among greatness, and a vivid portrait of events that were like the year they occurred – a stark line between what was, and what thereafter would be.
Frederick: 919-829-8956. Twitter: @Eric_Frederick
Best of Enemies
Theater: Carolina Theatre, Durham (919-560-3030)
Cast: William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal
Directors: Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Length: 87 minutes
Rating: R (sexual content, language, brief nudity)