Magazine article The American Conservative

Buckley against Vidal: They Were "Best of Enemies"-And Eerily Similar

Magazine article The American Conservative

Buckley against Vidal: They Were "Best of Enemies"-And Eerily Similar

Article excerpt

"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. …

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