Best of Enemies pits political rivals against each other in debate
The legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr. is not necessarily his National Review. It is not his devotion to the Buckley pure hatred of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, an act deemed a patrician’s treachery to his class. Rather, it is the implosion of what his brother Reid consecrates him as: a revolutionary who ushered in the conservative revolution that viewers see in the impossible array of 17 candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination for the American presidency and the experience known as Donald Trump.
Best of Enemies is a cautionary tale, a blow-by-blow coverage of the 1968 conventions for all to mull over. Co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville have brought viewers back in time when two patricians of America’s moneyed and political elite clashed in fulsome loathing. Each had a finger on the discontent and rage surging through the America of the 1960s.
Both offering little to heal the country’s woes during an undeclared war in Vietnam, civil rights protests, a counterculture and sexual awakening that Gore Vidal could understand, but Buckley execrated. They enjoined battle with barbed words as this joust of word politics had cleared the field for a war of ideas and high dudgeon that has not been seen nor heard in a half-century.
Dressed to the nines and fashionably coiffured, the two ends of high culture faced each other on ABC, with Howard K. Smith as moderator. Smith spoke a cultivated and cultured English that fit the tone of 10 verbal one up-man-ships during the Republican conventions in Miami and the disturbingly shrill Democratic convention that Mayor Daley ran as though it were a rump parliament.
It is apparent that the mentor of modern Conservatism was out for Vidal’s scalp by the glint in Buckley’s eye, contrary to Oscar Wilde’s advice. “Forgive your enemies, for nothing annoys them so much,” says Wilde.
Who has read Buckley’s God and Man at Yale today? Brilliant, effete, an amateur of the harpsichord, a seasoned sailor, he thought himself the American heir to the little-read G.K. Chesterton in his affected speech. He could demolish in high disdain the arguments of guests like Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg on his American public affairs show Firing Line. Buckley was a man of the right—God, country, law and order. He fought those critics of his values not necessarily in the name of freedom and humanity but in defense of older medieval values by attacking contemporary secular culture.
And the embodiment of Buckley’s distaste for the writer, playwright and commentator on things cultural was evident from the get-go. As the debate continued, shucking and sliding verbally with a supercilious grin on his lip as he flung mud at Vidal, he insinuated that Vidal had louche sexual preferences. Remember, Vidal had broken taboos for his controversial classic Myra Breckenridge,, a fictional story set in Hollywood about a transgender man. To Buckley, the writer of note was an enemy of God, patrician values and elite education which Vidal did not actually pursue.
Unlike Buckley, he was a drop-out who joined the Army during WWII, serving in Alaska where he wrote his much praised Williwaw. Vidal was a revolutionary in his own way; he published The City and the Pillar, which had a homosexual theme, that so exasperated The New York Times that they boycotted reviewing any of his books till decades later when they could not ignore his obvious talent.
As the debate progressed and the calm composure of Buckley melted away, his Hyde personality emerged by threatening to plaster Vidal in his face as he rose from his chair to attack him. In Gore, Buckley met more than his equal, so much so that until his death he would not utter the name of his rival.
Buckley and Vidal were bellwethers; each had a finger on the rage and discontent of the times. And according to the talking heads, their 10 debates radically changed political discourse that now plagues our own generation. Best of Enemies is more than nostalgia; it is a living slice of forgotten media history that set the poisoned, contentious atmosphere in what passes for political debate or commentary by today’s talking heads.