I met the author and polemicist Gore Vidal only once. It was at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, in 1998. I was in the audience at an event promoting Vidal’s latest novel, from which he was scheduled to read aloud.
Fatigued (the compere explained) from too much public reading, Vidal would, instead, respond to audience questions on any subject. Physically, he looked in pretty good shape. Though jowly, his features had a hawkish mien. He moved stiffly, maybe because of his age (he was 73), and perhaps due to the tight-looking fit on his bulky frame of an obviously expensive grey double-breasted suit. He reminded me of a wealthy businessman: well groomed, well fed and well watered.
The questions ranged none too widely: literature, politics, American foreign policy, and current affairs. Vidal handled the questions and audience with aplomb. He was knowledgeable, funny and sarcastic. Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, was in London and under arrest for human rights violations. What was Vidal’s view? Surely, he replied, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was a more appropriate candidate than the 82-year old Chilean for arrest and arraignment. It wasn’t a new joke, but it went down well. After the Q&A, Vidal met audience members and signed books.
All this came back to me recently, as I watched a new documentary, Best of Enemies. It focuses on a particular year in the history of the United States: 1968. It was a year of political assassinations, race riots, anti-Vietnam protests – and a presidential election. It was also a year after which the makers of Best of Enemies (or at least their publicists) tell us, television, at least in the United States, would never be the same. The reason? A series of 10 TV debates that took place between Vidal and the conservative commentator William F. Buckley, ostensibly focused on the Republican and the Democratic Party conventions of that year.
From what the new documentary shows us, the debates, like so many of the present day, were less about parties, politics or policies than about personalities – those of the protagonists. To say that Vidal and Buckley disliked one another would be an understatement; a keen, cultivated loathing is apparent. A weird symbiosis is also at work and – more importantly – on display. The two men’s elegant, erudite attacks on each other’s opinions and character are mutually reinforcing. It makes for terrifically entertaining viewing, or must do to those of a certain generation (mine, mostly, I suspect). Other, possibly younger, viewers, especially in the UK, might find the arguments and also the identity of the protagonists mystifying: who were these guys?
To be fair, the film-makers have provided some background and context on American society and politics, but the overall effect is sketchy, and there’s too much for the viewer to take in. However, Vidal and Buckley carry the film: both men made extensive use of broadcast media, especially television, and were adept practitioners in the arts of publicity (including self-publicity) and polemic. Neither man was a politician, though both had run – unsuccessfully – for public office. Vidal’s main success had come as an author of best-selling and sometimes notorious novels, such as Myra Breckenridge, with its eponymous heroine (a transgender woman) causing a sensation at the time – and leaving Buckley disgusted.
Vidal was a trenchant, provocative critic not only of American politics but also of American cultural and sexual mores. Buckley was his antithesis. Described as, among other things, ‘the father of American conservatism’ and the ‘scourge of liberalism’, Buckley had founded the journal National Review in 1955 and, from the early 1960s, exerted an increasingly strong intellectual influence on Republican Party politics. Buckley’s public persona was most notably on display in his TV programme Firing Line, which he hosted for more than 30 years from 1966.
Over its length, Best of Enemies builds up to the most explosive of the 10 debates, during the controversial Democratic Party convention of 1968, at Chicago. Goaded by Vidal, Buckley lost his temper and called his adversary a ‘queer’. In terms of media history, the moment stands comparison with the critic Kenneth Tynan’s utterance of the f-word on British television in 1965. The ill-will between Vidal and Buckley played out for years after the debate, to neither man’s advantage. Vidal (who died in 2012) seems to have derived great satisfaction from outliving Buckley, who died in 2008.
Best of Enemies isn’t really about debate, or even politics. But it is very entertaining and quite informative. Students of modern American society will undoubtedly learn from it. To get the best out of it, though, they’ll need to do some additional research on the period and the people.
In 2015, neither Buckley’s nor Vidal’s name has high (or perhaps any) real recognition among students in the UK. Good places to start with are Vidal’s essays, of which there are many collections, and Buckley’s Firing Line, which the Hoover Institution at Stanford University is making available online.
I was raised in the 1960s on a diet of, among other things, Time magazine, Life magazine and National Geographic (my National Enquirer years came later). For me, Best of Enemies was mostly a kind of fascinating nostalgia trip.
John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University
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