Best of Enemies (2015)

"Examining the fiery, acerbic debates televised debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s “The Best of Enemies” provides a rich, extraordinarily fascinating account that’s sure to have many viewers’ minds constantly shuttling between then and now, noting how different certain things about politics and media were in that distant era, yet marveling at how directly those archaic realities led to many of our own."
 Like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Buckley-Vidal throwdown was the product of the decade when television was truly in full effect in American life, and much was brand new. The 1968 conventions were the first to be broadcast in color, and an estimated 80 percent of Americans watched them. It was not an even playing field for the three networks, though. CBS and NBC had their star anchors (Walter Cronkite on the former, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the latter) and set out to broadcast the events gavel-to-gavel. 

Poor third-place ABC, with neither the stars nor the resources to match its competitors, needed a gimmick, and it lit upon a corker: have two ideological opposites debate the conventions as part of the network’s coverage. The choice of antagonists could not have been more incendiary. William F. Buckley, editor of the National Review and host of PBS’ “Firing Line,” was already the nation’s leading conservative media celebrity. Asked by the network if there was anyone he would not debate, he said he would refuse any Communist, or Gore Vidal. So the network of course enlisted Vidal, a celebrity provocateur from the left side of the dial, and persuaded Buckley to accept it.
The two had a history. They had crossed paths at political events in 1962 and 1964 and come away with a profound mutual loathing. As one interviewee, the late Christopher Hitchens, understates, “They really did despise each other.” That antipathy, which evidently owed much to Vidal’s taunting pan-sexuality and Buckley’s rigid Catholic revulsion at same, didn’t erupt into history-making acrimony till the ninth of the ten debates, but it’s in plain view from the first.
These exchanges came in the context of an America that was “being split at the seams,” as one commentator puts it. The Tet offensive in the winter showed the Vietnam War spiraling toward disaster. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated not long after, the former death sparking riots across the country. When the Republicans decided to hold their convention in Miami—their first below the Mason-Dixon line in 104 years—it was intended to distance the event from protestors.
Speaking of the differences between then and now, it’s striking how remote from any current TV personalities they are. Both were products of plush upbringings and boarding schools, with patrician accents and mannerisms that scream privilege and hauteur. Yet despite the upper-crust images, they were not, as one observer notes, products of the old Eastern establishment, but conquerors of it: outsiders who found their way in.
Strangely, as the film shows, this moment of white-hot vituperation had an even greater effect on the two men involved than on the culture at large. Neither could put it behind him. Buckley wrote a long piece for Esquire the following year ruminating on the contretemps. When Vidal riposted with (insulting) thoughts of his own, Buckley sued the magazine and the writer, a lawsuit that dragged on for years (Esquire eventually settled). As the intimates of both men tell it, they were haunted by the exchange till the end of their days, with Vidal apparently gaining a small degree of satisfaction in outliving Buckley and thus being able to have the final word. 

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