A number of presidential candidates have tried to make the case that the 2016 election is a watershed election, one that will define American identity and purpose for years to come. (Of course, what election hasn’t been called by the aspirants a watershed one?)
One election that does deserve the label is the election of 1968, won by “law and order” candidate Richard Nixon. It’s an election that is examined in Best of Enemies (August, 2015) by documentary film makers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. They look at the contest through a particular lens: a series of 10 debates between William Buckley, the editor of The National Review and one of the ideological founders of the modern conservative movement, and novelist, essayist, and occasional political candidate Gore Vidal. Both were born in 1925 and died four years apart, Buckley in 2008, Vidal in 2012.
ABC, a very distant third network in terms of political coverage, ratings, and reputation, was the host for the events and the gentlemanly Howard K. Smith was the moderator. An idea conceived in haste and desperation became one of the more interesting features of TV coverage, still very much in its infancy, even after the historic Nixon-Kennedy TV debates of 1960.
Though Buckley and Vidal were by no means the first of public political pundits, their testy encounters set the patterns for future network and public television programs – like the Point-Counterpoint feature of 60 Minutes that brought together the liberal Shana Alexander and the conservative James Kilpatrick, a debate format mocked by a number of Saturday Night Live skits featuring Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd. Imagine Rachel Maddow from MSNBC sparring with Sean Hannity of Fox.
The combatants were the best of enemies because in many ways they were so similar. Both were the sons of wealthy family dynasties. Buckley’s made his money in Texas oil; Vidal’s grandfather was a senator from Tennessee. Children of privilege, they had different responses to the fortune of their births. The conservative Buckley believed in rule by the educated elites while Vidal believed that the American ruling class was corrupt. The patrician Buckley believed in decorum and deference; the hedonistic novelist Vidal often sided with the disruptive forces of protest alive in the culture. One absolutely clear line of delineation was their judgments about the Vietnam War and outgoing President Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of it. Like many conservatives at the time and in the years following, Buckley believed that if American lost the war, it was because the peaceniks hated American and because the military had to fight with one hand behind its back. Vidal believed that by 1968 the war was truly lost, that Nixon’s “peace with honor” was a sham, and that the defeat was a mighty signal that there would be a great price to pay for America’s overextended Empire, an idea that seems very much applicable today.
The debates occurred on sound stages that ABC set up in Miami (the Republican convention) and in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago (the Democratic convention). Buckley didn’t miss the opportunity to bemoan the riotous anarchy in the streets; Vidal railed against the Stalinist police state set up to control those engaged in lawful democratic protest. The directors make good use of archival footage to help us understand context. They also use 21st century talking heads (Buckley’s brother Reid, media critic-historians Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman) to explain the subjects enduring significance.
The film reveals some interesting information. For instance, in ’68 Buckley championed Ronald Reagan, the newly elected Governor of California, and fostered the future president’s ideas about excessive government, the Communist threat, unregulated capitalism, and the moral decline of the nation. Buckley was truly a midwife to the Reagan Revolution. Vidal denigrated the rising star of the Republican Party as a juvenile Hollywood actor, a charge about credentials that Buckley skillful turns against Vidal, the writer of the scandalous popular novel Myra Breckinridge.
What makes the debates enjoyable to watch are the debate skills of the eloquent men under the studio lights. Both were witty and tenaciously threw potent verbal barbs at their adversary. Each spoke with a tone and cadence that some might label effete; indeed it’s hard to imagine any viewer wanting to go out and have a drink with either of these prep school boys. Despite their loathing for one another, their debates were mostly civil, except for a celebrated moment in one of the later debates when Vidal call Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and the flustered Buckley called Vidal a queer (Vidal was a very much an out-of-the-closet gay man and an advocate for much more fluid ideas about sexual identity) and threatened to throw a punch at his face. One can find in the debates a harbinger of the polarization of American political life in 2015.
Would that we could bring back these two “best enemies” as commentators for the summer 2016 political conventions. Presumably Buckley would have to defend the establishment wing of the Republican party against the populist demagoguery of Trump and Cruz and company. Like Jeb Bush, he might be less concerned about the content of The Donald’s messages as he would be by the out-of-control, indecorous ways in which they are delivered. Vidal, who is equally famous for a serious on unsentimental historical novels about raucous 19th century politics, would no doubt take perserve delight in the carnivalesque nature of American democracy and the fools who want to lead it. This is, after all, the sage who said that we all live in “the United States of Amnesia,” forever forgetful about the mistakes of our past and doomed to repeat them.