The War of the Public Intellectuals: A Review of “Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal” (2015)

When and how did the polarization of political opinion become so mainstream in the US? When was acrimony institutionalized? When did it become acceptable to deny a political opponent’s right to exist, and to commit oneself to the destruction of one’s opponents? When was incivility validated? Why are personal attacks, smears, and character assassination legitimized as normal tools of debate? Why have “passionate” expressions of “emotion” come to be taken as signs of credibility, as being worthy of attention? When did it become alright to shoot the messenger? When did the practice of talking over others become encouraged as a normal part of debate? Who popularized the “culture war” and made it a canon of American political discourse?

Though never a stable, cohesive society free of divisions, the US seems to have been so much at odds with itself at least since the 1960s that for some it resembles the prelude to war if not war itself. One film provides some important clues as to when and how the art of political attack became not just normalized, but institutionalized, even professionalized—specifically in the mass media. For many in academia today the figure of the “public intellectual” is deemed worthy of applause and emulation—but there is a film that shows public intellectuals in an altogether sobering light, with all of their “waspish bitchery” as one reviewer wrote in the late 1960s, or their languid elitism as another put it. Public intellectuals are shown as scripted breakers of public consensus, which sounds like a paradox. The status quo has tried to shield itself by appointing and promoting designated representatives of specific orthodox and heterodox thinking, and set them against each other in carefully orchestrated theatres of conflict. “Dissent” can not only be predicted and controlled in such venues, it can be created and therefore contained. Political debate, especially of the partisan kind, can operate in the same way as an authorized carnival. To this day the public is presented with iconic representatives of this or that political camp, with little question as to how these individuals came to prominence in the first place, and without investigation of the conditions that made their careers as public intellectuals possible. The media themselves directly point to this or that activist, and tell us that they are worthy of attention, even support. Meanwhile the public intellectuals train us in the art of “critique,” the identical twin of complaint, and lead us in an endless airing of grievances that sets individuals and groups against each other in what some call the culture wars.

Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal is a 2015 documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, co-written by Gordon, Melville, and Tom Graves. The film runs for one hour and 28 minutes. The voices of John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer are used to read documents by the film’s two main antagonists, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Gore Vidal. Otherwise the film consists mostly of archival footage and interviews. Relatives and friends are among those interviewed, plus a long list of journalists and academics. All of the reviews I have read have evaluated the film very positively, and my review will not differ on that front. This is a seriously engaging documentary, that excelled at being focused and maintaining an organized chronological structure, while achieving a difficult balance between opposed and competing views. The film informs and provokes questions, the way a good educator would. From the way the film has been organized and narrated, one gets little sense of where the directors and writers stood with respect to the contest between the film’s two main antagonists, Buckley and Vidal. If objectivity and neutrality are really impossible, then this films comes close to realizing the impossible.

The Documentary

The objective of the film appears simple and succinct: to revisit a key period in US media history, focusing on the very prominent and controversial debates between Buckley and Vidal in a series of ten televised encounters, mostly around the time of key party conventions. The climax comes at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago, following the Republican convention in Miami. The film aims to tell us about the biographies of Buckley and Vidal, extensively reviewing their public and private opinions of each other, while briefly trying to assess their impact, that is, the legacy they bestowed on subsequent media coverage of political contests. The film is thus also about the media, and about the culture wars.

William F. Buckley Jr. passed away in 2008. He was the founder of the National Review in 1955, and authored more than 40 books. Buckley’s own television show, Firing Line, was hosted by him for about three decades. One of the film’s interviewed experts declares that National Review was America’s most influential magazine in the 20th century. Gore Vidal passed away in 2012. Related to Jackie Kennedy, he was a frequent guest in John F. Kennedy’s White House, but had a bad falling out with Bobby Kennedy. Vidal was born into a political dynasty: his grandfather was a mayor, and his father served in the Franklin Roosevelt administration; Gore Vidal entertained ambitions of one day running for the presidency. Vidal authored numerous novels, a number of which became Hollywood films, and was a prolific author of articles in the media and a frequent guest on many of the hit television talk shows of his time. Both Buckley and Vidal had a high profile in the media, both were military veterans, and both were also failed political candidates (both in New York state). Also, both men were members of the same class, whose families had joined the elite Eastern establishment but had no antique roots in that establishment. Buckley was educated for a time in England. Vidal had never gone to college.

The film takes us through the events leading to the climax of the Buckley–Vidal confrontations, and what followed. The film begins with a clip of an interview with Gore Vidal at his seaside villa in Italy, and here we see he was unable to even chat casually without indulging his compulsion to attack Buckley, as if he had been permanently scarred by the encounters. Buckley appears thanking someone for an introduction to his speech, saying how nice it had been, then adding: “On the other hand if it hadn’t been I would have smashed you in the goddamned face,” and then he smiled. The audience laughed uncomfortably, slow to realize that Buckley was mocking his own famous eruption against Vidal. Vidal is shown again, boasting that he had left “the bleeding corpse of William F. Buckley, Jr., on the floor of the convention hall in Chicago”.

In 1968, ABC News hired William Buckley and Gore Vidal for 10 televised nightly debates during the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, in Miami and Chicago respectively. They had clashed in person once before. As for the conventions, the Chicago Democratic convention is remembered as the most historic of the two conventions, with many failed attempts by activists to re-enact it in the last two decades. The Republican convention in Miami was not peaceful either, with a race riot occurring in Miami. Everything seemed to be at stake: war, revolution, riots, racism, sexism, and so forth. These were two tendentious characters, with heavy axes to grind, put into the same pit with general discontent and conflict as their backdrop. Any semblance of centrism in that social context would have seemed highly artificial and sterile, so if anything ABC read the writing on the wall accurately, and then pandered to it and profited from it.

Buckley was selected as the supposed representative of conservative opinion, while Vidal presumably represented the liberal viewpoint. Thus the media continued training their audience into thinking in “right” versus “left” terms, inventions that many still treat as if they were meaningful categories. Todd Gitlin, media studies professor at Columbia University, appears in the documentary and states, “the institution in which Americans had the greatest confidence, was television news”. Trust in the news media has become a virtual article of faith in American public discourse now, even a branding device. Any sign of distrust is treated as somehow fatal to democracy itself. One is required to speak with reverence toward the media, lest one be accused of nurturing the bogeyman of “fascism”.

Brooke Gladstone of NPR predictably asserts that television news in America in the 1960s was “white, Anglo-Saxon, there were never any vowels at the end of the names,” returning us to the superficial identity politics obsessions of the present while pretending to forget that what she described was also the majority of Americans, and the majority of television viewers, and still is. However, it’s convenient for some professional media “critics” to speak as if there was some alternative, better America, perhaps also of different racial stock not stained by any sin, kept hidden somewhere by a vast conspiracy of silence.

A couple of speakers describe US television news in the 1960s as a “big, bland centre”. Centrism becomes a leading organizing principle, the fabled “middle ground”—just as invented as “left” and “right”. It’s a simple and outmoded way of categorizing politics, and eventually the habit will pass. Richard Wald, the former president of NBC News (thus not an impartial source), emphatically asserts that the networks were not dealers in controversy, they did not invite controversy: “they were in the centre…they were cementers of idea, not disruptors of idea [sic]”. That also suggests the media then, like today, actively filtered out anything they considered disruptive to the preferred narrative. This is press freedom for the sake of censoring the public.

The filmmakers’ narrative subtly implies that the centre was occupied by NBC and CBS, but one outlier—ABC—was struggling for market share and was thus driven to take desperate measures, i.e., inviting controversy. The suggestion then is that the media only became sensationalist in 1968, thanks to an aberration that then became the norm.

In other words, the film begins in troubling ways. Fortunately it gets better once Buckley and Vidal are left alone to speak and viewers are more often (not always) left alone to think for themselves without being told, as above, about how to frame the whole thing.

Of course, there were singular aspects to Buckley and Vidal, that made the nature of their encounter different, and that established a new pattern—that much seems obvious. But what Buckley and Vidal did was to innovate with what was already available, merely shifting words from one context to another, from where these words were acceptable to where they had been previously unacceptable. Nor did Buckley and Vidal create the context that called them forth as the system’s appointed actors, scripts in hand, conclusions predetermined. Buckley himself was perhaps a bit of an innovation, breaking with the common understanding of intellectuals as only being liberal or leftist. Here instead was a serious intellect, one that could not simply be dismissed, who had a lot of important and interesting things to say. The absence of such intellectuals in contemporary academia has reduced universities to deserts of conformity and repetition.

The film has a historian at the Heritage Foundation tell us that Buckley went into the first debate with an interest in debating issues, policies, and party platforms. Vidal, on the other hand, hired a researcher to investigate National Review for its allegedly racist and anti-Semitic tendencies, with the aim of destroying Buckley’s reputation. As one of Vidal’s friends explains, Vidal considered Buckley to be evil, anti-democratic, and in need of being taken down before he destroyed America. Ironically, as Dick Cavett points out, Vidal’s assault on Buckley years before (in 1964) had itself helped to make Buckley into a celebrity.

Vidal’s problem is that Buckley was not just an expert in making an argument, as one of the film’s commentators explains, but was even better at dismantling an opponent’s argument. Frequently we see Vidal almost gulping for air, scrambling for words, smiling nervously, searching for a comeback among the quips he had rehearsed and scripted in advance. Vidal was also taken aback—though one of the speakers in the film claims he was unfazed, despite what we see in front of our eyes—when Buckley presented a note sent to him by Bobby Kennedy, which he ended by writing “let’s give Gore Vidal to the Vietcong”. Vidal had little to say, except to allege that Bobby Kennedy must have been a “manic depressive,” based just on his analysis of his handwriting.

Their confrontation, as explained by a commentator in the film, was about “lifestyle, what kind of people we should be”. Their “real argument” was to be who was the better person. The best explanation for their animus, which I heard in the film, was that each saw in the other an exaggerated image of his own anxious version of himself. The supposed “extremes” are more alike and in greater agreement than one might think, as we shall see below. The way a “centre” is constructed is by positing the existence of at least two “extremes”; if the extremes should turn out to be more alike than different, then the centre itself also ceases to exist. We are then dealing with a single political field and, at most, multiple competing factions.

Finally, anyone who remembers the Buckley–Vidal debates will understand that the film’s climax is the famous attack by Buckley:

“Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered”.

Did 1968 Make 2018 Possible?

The film’s narrative is that the fault lines of contemporary American politics, whether about race, religion, or sex, were decided in the 1968 election, and that what we now call identity politics were being formed then. That would make Buckley and Vidal something like “the classics,” as authors who articulated the foundational perspectives dividing the US. This sense of existential crisis in 1968 seems to be repeated today. The film, released in 2015, could not have been more prescient than when it featured a clip of then presidential candidate Richard Nixon declaring, “let’s make America first again”.

It would seem obvious that anything that happened in the past could be credited with making something in the present possible, just because one thing happened before another. Here one is assuming that everything in the present is an effect, and all causes are in the past. Because X happened before Y, did X cause Y to happen? The makers of this documentary do not seem to resort to this sort of casual historicism. Instead, their focus is on a narrow slice of social life: political debate in the televised news media. With the aim kept narrow like that, one can make a plausible argument that political debate on television news channels, as we know it today, owes its origins to the Buckley–Vidal debates, because when they happened nothing like them had been seen or heard before, on television. Television is itself relatively new, and within that sphere reviewers reacted as if “innocence” had been lost thanks to Buckley and Vidal. Polemical rhetoric is otherwise quite ancient, and identity politics in the US long precede 1968. The film presents the precursors to the kind of mass mediated political dialogue that has become the norm today in North America. (Social media are no different: users of those sites tend to mostly repeat and amplify what they consume from the mass media, lobbing links to news articles at each other as if they were wielding some magical grenades bursting with what is presumed to be incontestable “truth”.)

The more dramatic way to look at 1968 is to see it as the opening of the gates of media hell. The stage was set then. Buckley and Vidal became the moulds for a generation of political “pundits” that followed, largely aping them, and necessarily translating them into colloquial speech since few today have the kind of command of Latin that these two aristocrats boasted. In key ways, Buckley and Vidal wrote the code for what would become the new norm of political debate, a new illiberal liberalism, a liberal intolerance for the very virtues it once championed. In the process the “public intellectual” became little more than an uncivil militant, whose words were chosen to have the maximum destructive impact on opponents.

“Incivility” is not new in 2016–2018. What the film understandably does not do is to provide us with a sort of theory to explain why in some periods civility is dominant, and in others the opposite holds sway, though it would seem obvious now why that is: the crashing of the liberalist project.

But if 2018 in certain ways seems like a direct descendant of the events and processes unleashed in 1968, how might 2018 still stand as different, as revealed in this film and in the figures of its two key actors?

Buckley and Vidal, Seen from 2018: The Identity Politics Problem

Buckley and Vidal are acknowledged as patrician figures, New Victorians in their own way, most easily identified as members of a cultural elite. They speak with maximum affectation, making ostentatious displays of their erudition. They speak slyly toward each other, smugly relishing their silky slander, both taking the tones of an aloof yet abrasive monarch. They are duplicitous, hoping their calm tones might be mistaken for diplomacy while using the worst possible words for describing each other: sodomite, fag, queer, Nazi, traitor, racist, war-monger, etc.

Homosexuality plays such a prominent role in the Buckley–Vidal conflict that one might easily be excused for thinking these two launched the culture war on television, both indulging in what we today call identity politics—the film’s narrative says as much. There is a lot of evidence to support such a conclusion, but I think it is a bit misleading. Both seemed to wet their hands with identity politics, but in the end it seems to be with the aim of shaking off such politics.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

Buckley’s excursions into identity politics appear in his extensive discussion of “faggotry” and accusations by pro-gay publications that he engaged in something undefined called “faggot logic” or a “faggot dialectic”. In a debate around the morality of segregation, Buckley early on refused to characterize it as “immoral” (his argument might be more nuanced than some might admit). Buckley also debated Vidal on whether Truman had asserted that Eisenhower was an anti-Catholic and anti-Semite, and that the latter allegedly upheld beliefs in racial superiority. Race, religion, and sexuality are thus prominent.

Yet the great irony is that both Buckley and Vidal fundamentally agreed with each other on a basic point concerning homosexuality: neither one viewed it as “normal”. Since they were so busy spitting venom in each other’s faces they never faced their own consensus on this point. Thus Buckley wrote:

“I was prepared, should the subject arise, to attempt to state the case, biological, cultural, and religious, for heterosexuality (that sounds funny, doesn’t it?)—prepared to go so far as to defend its ‘normalcy’; to defend, even, the idea that normalcy in this instance at least is related to what is normative: to defend, one might say, the conservative position”.

There Buckley is suggesting that homosexuality, unlike heterosexuality, is not normal. But Vidal also wrote:

“Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime…despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word ‘natural,’ not normal”.

The film never mentions this basic agreement between Vidal and Buckley, that homosexuality is not normal. Nor does the film suggest the possibility that both men authored attacks on what we today demarcate as identity politics.

Thus Buckley’s apparent attacks on homosexuality are not on homosexuality itself as such, but on what he perceived as the attempts of some political manipulators to use homosexuality to disrupt normal family life: “In order to establish the abnormality of normality, the vehicle is homosexuality”. Buckley quoted Time magazine: “the remedy for overpopulation might be homosexuality”. Buckley accused Vidal of proposing “the dissolution of the family” and of reducing breeding to a procedure best reserved for laboratories. Yet on some of these same points what we read from Vidal is more agreement again: “It is true that at one point Myra makes a case for homosexuality on the ground that it might help contain the population explosion. That was a joke”. (Myra is a reference to the main character in Vidal’s novel, Myra Breckenridge, which was made into a movie.)

Though he is misunderstood by some as a champion of gay liberation, Vidal—who never came out of the closet and frequently resorted to homophobic slurs against opponents—had this to say:

Gore Vidal

“Buckley indicates that I prefer homosexuality to heterosexuality. Now I want to make one thing absolutely clear, as Richard Nixon would say: I do not prefer homosexuality to heterosexuality—or, for that matter, heterosexuality to homosexuality. Unhappily, somewhere along the way, those who write for newspapers decided that since I thought homosexuality as natural as heterosexuality, I must then hate heterosexuality and love homosexuality. One of the sad characteristics of popular journalism is that what ought to be true is true. Contrary evidence is not admitted, including the two million words which I have published in the last twenty-five years, nowhere stating that homosexuality ought to be the preferred form of sexuality”.

Vidal objected to labelling and categorizing sex, sexual orientations, and any and all sexual practices. This was probably the most revolutionary aspect of his thinking, and it’s a contribution he made that would put him directly at odds with today’s identity politicians, turgid with fastidious worry about labels and even pronouns, melodramatic about the urgent need to institutionalize their recent linguistic concoctions lest “genocide” breaks out.

On other areas of identity politics, Vidal sounds almost like Buckley, if not worse. Vidal was critical of mass immigration. As for what might have then become a #MeToo movement, revolving around an underage female raped by Roman Polanski, Vidal said: “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?”.

What really stands out then as the dividing line between Buckley and Vidal is their perspective on the American empire. Buckley, were he alive today, might be perceived as a “neocon”—he ardently defended the US war in Vietnam, and was outraged against Vidal’s anti-imperialism. But if Vidal was an anti-imperialist, it was not without its own ambiguities. For example, Vidal was an avid supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and said that the latter would have made a “wonderful president”. Otherwise Vidal’s foresight came in his comments, in a debate with Buckley shown in the film, when he said that there was a danger in the US not recognizing that it was time to let go of empire before it wrecked the US, generated all sorts of social divisions, and redistributed resources away from social welfare and towards foreign warfare. Buckley’s brother, Reid (appearing in the film)—a conservative and no fan of Vidal—agreed that Vidal was correct in characterizing the US as an empire.

Pressed to be Nasty: Buckley & Vidal on the Media

Buckley, like Vidal, may have had a bottomless reservoir of spleen, but if anything the networks did not resist that trait in both men; the networks instead seemed to actively encourage them to do their worst. Buckley suggested that he felt some pressure to be nasty from the networks:

“Bent on promoting their forthcoming programs, the people at ABC set up a lunch for me to meet the area’s television critics, and subsequently did as much, I assume, for Vidal. Such meetings, as every writer knows, are something of a strain: because you are generally made to feel that you can only please by being viperish”.

ABC was desperate for attention, as Buckley noted, referring to one writer who commented on the “the vaudeville-team approach to interpretative journalism employed by ABC television”. In response to public shock resulting from Buckley’s famous attack on Vidal, ABC official Elmer Lower insincerely asked: “what can you do except talk to the individuals and ask that it not happen again?”—except as Buckley tells us, ABC did nothing of the kind. ABC’s reaction to Buckley’s attack on Vidal, and the conflict between the two that night, was to say nothing to either of them about it. One can assume ABC was satisfied with the heightened ratings bonanza—the film itself presents evidence of ABC’s soaring ratings.

Vidal for his part might bring to mind Hillary Clinton, for thriving on media attention and yet having a jaundiced view of the same media—here is Vidal:

“The unique mess that our republic is in can be, in part, attributed to a corrupt press whose roots are in mendacious news (sic) magazines like Time and Newsweek, aided by tabloids that manufacture fictional stories about actual people. This mingling of opinion and fiction has undone a media never devoted to truth….The habit of lying is now a national style that started with ‘news’ magazines that was further developed by pathological liars that proved to be ‘good’ Entertainment on TV. But a diet of poison that has done none of us any good”.

As far as Vidal was concerned, the media were always purveyors of “fake news,” and were most certainly enemies of the people. Nothing about the present would be in the least bit surprising to him, and perhaps would be completely uninteresting as well.

The documentary ends with a barrage of images from today’s news media, showing Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Paul Begala, and others, engaged in fierce and noisy argument, sometimes with contorted faces. The film’s narrative is that today the US is divided into factions, “communities of concern,” that do not share the same media since there is a proliferation of media niches (cable channels, groups online, etc.). Without shared images and messages, without the willingness or ability to listen to each other, America ceases to be a nation.

The Film’s Personal Challenge

Then there is a personal challenge—whether this was the intention of the film is not known to me, but it was one important consequence of viewing this film, as it might be for others. The film may thus be a useful device for deprogramming partisan militants, or at least for encouraging calm reflection by critically examining the roots of one’s indulgence in hysterical oppositional hyperbole. Who made you so angry? What makes you speak out the way you do? Who benefits from your being the dog that constantly runs after bones thrown by unseen others from on high? Why keeping running around the same track without ever stopping to ask: Who made me run? Who laid this track? Where am I going?

Thus with all of the flattering talk of individual agency that the neoliberal era ushered in, propagated especially by academics in universities, there is very little manifestation of that ultimate form of agency which inquires into the roots and conditions of one’s supposed agency. What made one’s agency possible to begin with? What makes it knowable? What makes what we say or do a manifestation of “agency”? Is everything we say or do a demonstration of our agency? When did certain actions become thinkable to us as realistic, possible, or necessary? What made us think that we found the right way to express ourselves, the right decision to make, the right action to take? Where did our motivations come from, what made the motivations seem like compelling ones, and what gave shape to those motivations? And lastly for now, does everyone have the same level of agency, or do some have more than others?

Conclusion

This documentary would be an excellent resource for those teaching courses in American history, media studies, sociology, and political science. Given its many virtues, and thanks to the sheer mass of information that the filmmakers sourced from dozens of archives, and the great volume of questions that this film provokes, I would give it a score of 9/10.

(This documentary review forms part of the political analysis series on Zero Anthropology. Each documentary is viewed at least four times before a written review is published, as was the case here.)

Recommended Reading

Buckley, Christopher. (2012). “Christopher Buckley on His Father’s Old Nemesis, Gore Vidal”. The New Republic, August 1.

Buckley, William F., Jr. (1969). “On Experiencing Gore Vidal: Can there be any justification in calling a man a queer before ten million people on television?Esquire, August 1.

Editors. (2004). “Vidal Discredited!National Review, December 14.

Grunwald, Michael. (2018). “How everything became the culture war”. The Week, November 22.

Grynbaum, Michael M. (2015). “Buckley vs. Vidal: When Debate Became Bloodsport”. The New York Times, July 24.

Meroney, John. (2008). “A Conversation With Gore Vidal”. The Atlantic, October.

Murphy, Jarrett. (2004). “Buckley and Vidal: One More Round”. The Village Voice, December 20.

Pareene. (2008). “Gore Vidal Does Happy Little Jig Upon William F. Buckley’s Grave”. Gawker, March 21.

Rosen, James. (2015). “Buckley, Vidal, and the Long, Hot Summer of ’68”. National Review, August 27.

Scott, A.O. (2015). “Review: ‘Best of Enemies’ Recalls Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.’s TV Battles”. The New York Times, July 30.

Teeman, Tim. (2013). “How Gay Was Gore Vidal?Daily Beast, July 31.

Vidal, Gore. (2008). “Gore Vidal Speaks Seriously Ill of the Dead”. Truthdig, March 21.

————— . (1969). “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr.: Can there be any justification in calling a man a pro crypto Nazi before ten million people on television?Esquire, September 1.

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