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William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal face off (again) in 'Best of Enemies' 

The whole world was watching

HEAR ME NOW: The Buckley-Vidal debates "held out the possibility of violence."
  • HEAR ME NOW: The Buckley-Vidal debates "held out the possibility of violence."

William F. Buckley Jr. was the Ivy League-educated heir to an oil fortune whose greatest political conviction — a little conveniently, if you ask me — was that true freedom necessitated social inequality. He spoke in a transatlantic, faux-British accent, founded the far-right magazine National Review and wrote spy novels in his spare time. Sometimes dubbed the "scourge of liberalism," he stridently supported the Vietnam War, opposed the civil rights movement (Southern whites being, he once wrote, the "advanced race"), greatly admired the dictators Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet, and was a close confidante to Ronald Reagan, with whom he occasionally went swimming. So what do we make of the recent wave of Buckley nostalgia?

The answer has everything to do with his TV show "Firing Line," a longtime PBS fixture (taxpayer supported, natch) on which he held lengthy, languid debates with politicians and public intellectuals of all sorts: Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, Milton Friedman, Groucho Marx. The show has managed a surprising afterlife in the form of 9-minute YouTube fragments, which are enough — in the era of "Fox & Friends" — to make Buckley's style of TV punditry seem downright cerebral. Preferable to the present mode, certainly, which even its defenders will generally concede is a morass of celebrity holograms and hyper-partisan dog-whistling. This is the narrative, anyway, of the new documentary "Best of Enemies," which focuses on Buckley's televised 1968 debates against the writer Gore Vidal on ABC, debates the film presents as having "changed television forever."

Unlike Buckley, Vidal can't exactly be framed as an avatar of any recognizable voting constituency, though he did run for office twice (unsuccessfully) as a Democrat. His most consistent and vocal stance was more or less that the U.S. had become a "decadent empire" — a position which, in the film, even Buckley's own brother admits is pretty inarguable. Vidal was a screenwriter, a prolific essayist and a novelist; the last career was his primary one, though his books today have almost completely vanished from any version of the canon (unlike, say, Robert Coover, whose books are little-read but still considered important, Vidal's books are just plain obscure). Buckley called him an "evangelist for bisexuality," a label which — despite the disgust audible in the phrase — Vidal probably accepted happily.

Over the course of the 1968 presidential conventions, the two of them held a series of debates that were mostly memorable because, as one commentator here puts it, they "held out the possibility of violence." It got weird, personal and vicious, basically, and the whole thing culminated in Buckley — that great wit — calling Vidal a "queer" and threatening to punch him in the face. This is the TV we are meant to mourn, I guess. Watching the film, it's hard to escape the notion that politics had almost nothing to do with it. Politics, in the Buckley-Vidal debates, was pure style, genre, ornament. The tens of thousands of protestors outside the Chicago convention, the ones being tear-gassed and beaten by police, were at the very least responding viscerally to the issues of the day. Buckley and Vidal, their upper-crust accents almost indistinguishable, were trading jokes.

To be fair, they were pretty good jokes. Vidal polished his act up beforehand, practicing on ABC reporters in the studio. Buckley seems to have been the real thing — genuinely quick on his feet and always ready with a snide, sometimes truly cruel bon mot. He was the same way on "Firing Line," which would actually get to the heart of things occasionally (particularly when Chomsky was on hand; the meek regular guy-ness behind his intellect seemed to stump Buckley, who preferred a sword fight). And it's the length of "Firing Line" that we've been missing. You had the feeling they could get somewhere. Not so in the Vidal-Buckley showdown, which, if really it did "change television forever," changed it for the worse.

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