Pass the Popcorn: The Best of Enemies

September 28, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This weekend I had the opportunity to see the documentary The Best of Enemies about William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. The documentary focuses on the decision of ABC News to hire the two rival public intellectuals to cover the 1968 Republican and Democratic Party Conventions.

I am going to fully confess my bias from the outset. In a disclosure that should shock no one, I went into (and left) the documentary as a fan of William F. Buckley Jr. I watched Firing Line growing up and enjoyed Buckley’s wit and flair. Perhaps a decade ago I read a collection of responses to reader inquiries in National Review and found it absolutely hilarious. Two of my favorite anecdotes- a reader complained that Buckley slouches in his chair on Firing Line, fails to comb his hair properly and could make a much better impression if he would take more pride in his appearance. WFB’s response fell something along the lines of:

If I was also attractive it just wouldn’t be fair.

Another reader wrote to renew his subscription to National Review despite a terminal prognosis, relating that he was not sure he would last to read all the issues. Buckley responded:

Not to worry-where you are going the pages of National Review are exfoliated from the wings of Angels!

Buckley always struck me as a happy warrior and an elegant and delightfully mischievous champion of his point of view. Going into the film I had very little awareness of Gore Vidal-I had seen him appear as a left of center pundit once or twice and knew he was an author of historical fiction that I had never read. I learned from the film that Vidal held a much more prominent status in the late 1960s.

ABC News decided to try to improve upon their third banana status as a news organization by inviting Buckley and Vidal to comment on the conventions. The Republicans held the first convention in Miami and from the start Vidal revealed his true purpose. He had no intention of bothering with the conventions, but rather focused his efforts on attacking Buckley. Vidal had spent months doing the equivalent of opposition research on Buckley, and came right out of the gate by accusing Buckley of wanting to drop atomic bombs on North Vietnam.

Vidal apparently viewed Buckley and his ideas as “dangerous” and a deep and personal antipathy developed. Although Vidal and Buckley shared a great deal in terms of background, education and debating style, they absolutely despised each other on ideological grounds. If Vidal however had an animating ideology that went beyond hatred for the Vietnam War and what now comes across as a rather boring promotion of alternative sexuality as a form of self-promotion, the film fails to make the case. Cross Madonna with the Boz, boost his IQ and send him to boarding school = Vidal as far as I can tell. In fairness to Vidal, he has had a lot of help over the last 50 years in making what may have seemed daring in 1968 seem like next year’s juvenile prank at the MTV Music Awards now. Nevertheless…yawn.

Matters came to a head at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. You may recall that Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President was heading for the nomination (although not the Presidency) and a huge anti-war protest attempted to storm the convention hall. Old-school Democratic Mayor Daley’s police commenced to beat back the protestors with clubs on live television. The protestors chanted “The whole world is watching!” but as divided as the country appeared at the time one wonders just how much of the world actually disapproved. The documentary air-brushes the “storm the convention” story element out of the narrative, and I wasn’t there so I won’t pretend to know what happened. Perhaps the Chicago Police gathered their forces and attacked the protestors to practice their softball swings, but I rather doubt it. The documentary also makes some effort to portray the “law and order” platform of the Nixon campaign as thinly veiled racism, but those hippies getting beat up by the police looked pretty pasty to the casual viewer.

Buckley and Vidal essentially provided color commentary to the melee. Vidal accused Buckley of being responsible and referred to him as a crypto-Nazi. Buckley lost his cool, informed Vidal that he had fought in World War II, used a derogatory term to describe Vidal referencing his sexual orientation and threatened to physically attack him if he described him as a Nazi again.

Time for a commercial!

Vidal got what he wanted and had consistently sought across both conventions- to get under Buckley’s skin and cause him to lose his cool. Buckley apparently regretted the incident until the day he died. Appropriately so.

Living well is the best revenge, and here Buckley clearly came out on top. The modern conservative movement that Buckley had founded reached an apex of influence under Reagan. Various “dangerous” Buckley ideas resulted not in the sky falling, but rather in a Soviet collapse. The sting of the defeat in the Vietnam skirmish ought to have diminished in winning the Cold War considerably.

Vidal outlived Buckley, with someone in the film speculating that hateful spite of Buckley may have prolonged his miserable existence. My lack of familiarity with Vidal was not terribly unusual for someone my age. Vidal’s later years became an oblivion of indifference as people stopped reading his books. After Buckley’s death, he wrote “Rest in Hell!” Vidal however had already entered the ninth circle for a narcissist- public apathy.

Despite the fact that almost 50 years have passed since 1968 the tumult captured in the film seems very current. The past is never dead, it is not even past.