Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies is a movie about television—specifically, the short debates between liberal novelist Gore Vidal and conservative magazine editor William F. Buckley that were broadcast live on ABC during nightly news coverage of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions in 1968. Vidal and Buckley loathed and disrespected each other, and each took it as his moral responsibility to drive the other from the public square. Their endless onscreen needling, still preserved on videotape, climaxed during the chaos of the Chicago Democratic convention when Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley replied, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

It’s a legendary TV moment, and to writer-directors Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) and Robert Gordon it represents nothing less than the dawn of our current left-right shouting match. Best of Enemies ends with a closing montage connecting the Vidal-Buckley debates with our present-day cacophony of cable-news opinionators, none of whom possesses a fraction of the wit or erudition the older two men brought to the tube. Yet the Vidal-Buckley feud also broke past the boundaries of television into publishing in 1969, when each man published a lengthy account of their TV clash in Esquire. Gordon and Neville treat the Esquire chapter briefly, near the end, but in those two print pieces lies the larger story of Vidal and Buckley’s personal antagonism.

Buckley and Vidal were primarily print men, but their mutual antagonism had unfolded on the tube. They first debated in 1962, on David Susskind’s talk show Open End, and took an instant dislike to each other. After Vidal lambasted Buckley and his fire-breathing magazine National Review on NBC’s late-night The Jack Paar Show, Buckley was granted equal time on a subsequent broadcast. Susskind had the duo back on in 1964 during the Republican National Convention; they were the natural choices for the nightly debate segment when ABC, the lowest-rated of the three networks, decided to forgo traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage of the 1968 conventions for a tightly focused, prime-time news roundup. As Gordon and Neville point out with a split-screen of Vidal and Buckley, the two men were remarkably similar in their bearing: proud, elegant, well educated, well-spoken. Both were elitists who claimed to know the popular will (Vidal the grandson of a U.S. senator, Buckley the cosseted son of a western oil man), and both had run for office in New York, unsuccessfully (Vidal in a 1960 race for Congress, Buckley in a 1965 campaign for mayor).

Despite these similarities, Vidal and Buckley came at each other across a cultural divide that would soon consume the entire country. Buckley was disgusted by Vidal’s homosexuality, and even more so by his satirical novel Myra Breckinridge, with its transgender hero; Vidal thought Buckley was an anti-Semite and was appalled by his intellectual brew of free-market economics, anticommunism, and Catholic religiosity. When the two met in Miami for the Republican National Convention, their debate immediately turned personal, and when they met again in Chicago the following month, with police and protesters clashing on the streets, it turned ugly. One can hardly imagine now how shocked people were to hear words such as queer and goddamn on television; Gordon and Neville have to bring in a linguist to explain how taboo they were. Vidal couldn’t have been more pleased; he later wrote, “In full view of ten million people, the little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions of others, to get a good look at.”

Buckley was mortified by his outburst, which was much remarked upon in the press, and still aggrieved by Vidal. Late that year he contacted Harold Hayes, editor of Esquire, and asked if he could write an essay about the debates. According to Hayes, Buckley said, “I think if I were to try and write about it, I might be able to work out why I said what I did. I will need some length, and I must be assured that your lawyers will allow me to call Vidal a homosexual in print. Otherwise there is no point in undertaking it.” Esquire‘s researchers gathered enough information to prove this was so, and the magazine’s attorneys gave the OK, though Vidal had never come out (as his associate Matt Tyrnauer explains in Best of Enemies, he was “obsessed with shedding sexual labels”). Esquire would have to give Vidal a chance to reply, however, and as soon as he read a manuscript of Buckley’s gargantuan, 12,000-word piece, he began drawing up one of his own, hoping to expose Buckley as an anti-Semite once and for all.

“On Experiencing Gore Vidal,” published in the August 1969 issue, is a sprawling memoir of Buckley’s encounters with Vidal and a merciless fact-checking of his fudgy statements on the air. Buckley has great fun with three public appearances in which Vidal variously proclaimed that there were 16 million, 30 million, and 40 million Americans living in poverty. But framing the piece is an impassioned attack on homosexuality and those who would advocate it. Myra Breckinridge, Buckley declares, is part of “the continuing crusade of Gore Vidal not only to license homosexuality but to desacralize heterosexuality.” He notes with horror Vidal’s endorsement of gay couples raising children through artificial insemination, and shames him for glamorizing gay sex. Buckley closes by offering Vidal an apology, but only for his intemperate language on the air; the sentiment behind it he raises like a flag.

Vidal fired back in September with “A Distasteful Encounter With William F. Buckley Jr.,” which ran about half the length of Buckley’s. Like Buckley he revisits their various encounters, but his main order of business is exposing a scandalous incident from Buckley’s childhood in the wealthy town of Sharon, Connecticut. In 1944, after a local real estate agent sold a home to a Jewish couple, the Episcopal church where her husband served as pastor was desecrated by vandals. “Honey and feathers were poured over the velvet cushions of the pews,” writes Vidal. “Prayer books were defaced. Obscene photographs were inserted in the Bible.” Vidal reports that three of the Buckley children confessed to the crime and were convicted, and he concludes (without stating it in so many words) that one of them was 18-year-old Bill Buckley. According to Vidal, Buckley’s meltdown on ABC over the term crypto-Nazi was no flash of temper but a calculated maneuver to prevent Vidal from telling the story on television.

The moment Vidal’s response hit the newsstands, Buckley filed suits against the author and against Esquire, charging that the article had defamed him as “a Nazi, a homosexual, a war lover, and an anti-Semite,” to quote Vidal biographer Fred Kaplan. Buckley had been in South Carolina on the night three of his sisters desecrated the church in Sharon, though Vidal’s careful wording of the accusation had been enough to protect him on that score, and Esquire‘s attorneys concluded that Buckley’s entire case was weak. After three years of litigation, with the trial phase about to begin, the magazine decided to settle out of court and pay Buckley’s legal tab of $115,000. Buckley promptly dropped his suit against Vidal, declared victory in a surprise press conference, and gave his nemesis a good scolding. (“Let his own unreimbursed legal expenses . . . teach him to observe the laws of libel. I hope it will not prove necessary to renew the discipline in future years. There are limits even to my charity.”)

Buckley may have triumphed over Vidal in the courts, but no legal injunction can erase that video clip of Buckley, his face twisted in rage, as he ranted at Vidal on ABC. Near the end of Best of Enemies, Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus recalls attending a TV taping in 1999 that marked the end of Buckley’s long-running PBS show Firing Line. When the host, Ted Koppel, surprised Buckley by airing the ABC clip, Buckley had no response at all; after the program he “made a beeline” for Tanenhaus, saying, “I thought that tape had been destroyed.” Buckley went to his grave in 2008 knowing that, despite a brilliant career as a writer, an editor, and the virtual founder of modern conservatism, his place in history would be defined by those few seconds of videotape. Four years later Vidal went to his grave savoring those same few seconds.  v