Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dueling mandarins: Vidal & Buckley in 1968

One of the better moments in The Best of Enemies, the currently playing documentary about the TV encounters between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. in 1968, is a three-minute side-by-side comparison of the two men's origins.  Both came from privileged if not especially 'old money' backgrounds, both went to elite prep schools, both rode horses well as teenagers, or so the photographs on the screen indicate.  Both were intellectuals.  Both spoke with the sort of upper-class accent that has now almost vanished.  Both ran for office (Vidal more than once).  A Marxist -- or anyone else, really -- from another planet might wonder how in the world these two men ended up calling each other names on prime-time TV during the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in That Year, 1968.

Class is not always destiny, would be a five-word answer to that question.  And yet, as one of the many (too many) interviewees in this movie suggests, it is possible that each man saw a bit of himself in the other, maybe just enough to nudge dislike over the boundary into loathing.  Despite -- or, who knows, perhaps because of? -- his utterly despicable political and ideological stances, it is Buckley whose charm and air of insouciance (for lack of a better phrase) are more evident when the two square off in front of the ABC-TV camera.  Vidal was, as the person with whom I saw the movie remarked, more self-contained, his gestural, non-verbal language a bit less naturally suited to TV.  There was nothing shabby about Vidal's verbal performance, however, even if, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out with reference to the most infamous exchange, it was not actually true that Buckley was a crypto-Nazi, though he was unquestionably a reactionary.  Still, it's not difficult to see why Vidal, responding to a somewhat loaded question from moderator Howard K. Smith and faced with an annoyingly interrupting Buckley, reached for an insult.

The Best of Enemies is a thesis movie, i.e. it has an argument, and that argument is that the Buckley-Vidal encounter was the ur-moment that shaped TV punditry as it came to exist in the U.S. in the ensuing decades.  Maybe, though I think the argument is pressed a bit too hard.  I have no recollection of watching the Buckley-Vidal encounter at the time: my memories of 1968, somewhat sketchy in general given my age then, are not primarily televisual, though I do have a couple of memories of the Democratic convention that I think must derive from having watched some of it.

In the end, despite this movie's best efforts to convince one otherwise, the Vidal-Buckley debates must be considered, I think, basically an interesting footnote to a tumultuous, historic year -- even if it was a footnote that generated subsequent essays and lawsuits by the protagonists -- rather than a central event.  However, as many of us know, footnotes are not necessarily unimportant; and The Best of Enemies, despite its flaws as a movie, will help ensure that this particular footnote will continue to be remembered.

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