I was a high school student in 1968 when William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were pitted against each other as commentators on the Democratic and Republican political conventions, an innovation that is the subject of the new documentary “Best of Enemies.” I saw the film over the weekend, and was reminded why my teenage self rooted for Buckley even though my politics were closer to Vidal’s and I had delightedly devoured his political novel “Washington, D.C.”
The film is receiving deserved attention, but maybe for the wrong reason: its suggestion that ABC News’ decision to feature Buckley and Vidal as part of its bargain-basement convention coverage launched the politicization of TV news that culminated in the squawking heads of Fox News and MSNBC.
Supposedly the progression went from Buckley-Vidal to James Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander facing off on “60 Minutes” (and “Saturday Night Live’s” parody of those clashes) to “Crossfire” and then to Fox/MSNBC. The end of “Best of Enemies” touches all of these bases and includes Jon Stewart’s priggish takedown of “Crossfire.”
I don’t buy it. MSNBC and Fox News are much better explained by the explosion of cable television than by the popularity of the bilious encounters between Buckley and Vidal -- which in their venom did anticipate Dan Aykroyd’s immortal put-down “Jane, you ignorant slut.”
Still, “Best of Enemies” is worth watching for its character studies (and some surprising showbiz cameos). Somewhat surprisingly, Buckley emerges in the film as the more sympathetic figure -- notwithstanding the blowup that serves as the centerpiece of the documentary.
After Vidal accused him of being a “pro-crypto-Nazi,” Buckley appalled a lot of viewers -- and, it seems, himself -- by blurting out: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.”
Yet Buckley was provoked, not just by the “pro-crypto-Nazi” dig but by Vidal’s overall approach to the debates. Unlike Buckley, he seems to have regarded them from the start as a theater of invective rather than an opportunity for intellectual combat. A lot of his putdowns of Buckley are as rote and rude as “Jane, you ignorant slut.”
Moreover, Vidal’s attacks on the Republican Party as the party of greed clash comically with his aristocratic mien; at least with Buckley his politics and persona were in alignment.
The film also suggests that, while Buckley harbored regrets about the “you queer” outburst, Vidal had no qualms about provoking it and nursed a nasty grudge about the encounter. I suspect that a lot of younger viewers who go into the film expecting to identify with Vidal because of his politics will come out thinking: “What a jerk.”
That jerk was also a brilliant essayist and novelist and a keen observer of politics. “Best of Enemies” features a clip from the film version of Vidal’s play “The Best Man” in which the cerebral presidential candidate played by Henry Fonda manages to express Vidal’s intellectual elitism without the author’s snark.
You like Fonda in that scene, just as you’ll like Buckley in a lot of the nondebate footage included in “Best of Enemies.” Vidal, genius that he was, remains unlikable throughout.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3