Political Inferno

Best of Enemies recalls the tumultuous left-right politics of the late ’60s

Perhaps the high point in left v. right political debate happened in 1968. That same moment also unwittingly launched the cable news shout fests that masquerade as informed, civilized discourse today. In the documentary Best of Enemies, that summer—and two towering icons of conservative and liberal thought—are put under the microscope.

Context prevails on us to remember the setting. In 1968, we had reached half a million troops in Vietnam, a number that would peak in January the following year. North Korea hijacked the U.S.S. Pueblo, taking dozens of sailors hostage for the better part of a year (and they still have the ship). Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated nine weeks apart. Protests engulfed major cities throughout America. It's not an exaggeration to say that 1968 was the most tumultuous year in the U.S. since the Civil War.

It was also an election year, marked by a sitting president refusing to run for re-election. The Republican candidate was Richard Nixon; the Democratic candidate was Hubert Humphrey, assuming the mantle of frontrunner after the RFK shooting. You even had George Wallace preaching segregation on a third-party ticket. So covering the conventions was big business for the TV networks. NBC and CBS went wall-to-wall. ABC, however, was a newcomer and had to work less expensively.

The idea was hatched that conservative firebrand William F. Buckley, Jr. should debate liberal writer Gore Vidal after each night of each convention, which ABC would broadcast as an alternative to traditional debate coverage. Buckley was the intellectual leader of post-war conservatism, the founder of National Review and host of Firing Line on PBS. Vidal was primarily a novelist at this point—his scandalous Myra Breckinridge was released earlier in '68—though both he and Buckley tried unsuccessfully for public office during the 1960s.

As the film showcases, the men could not be much different, either in their approach to politics or their vision of cultural mores. There is clear distaste for one another, which evidently lasted until their deaths four decades later. Buckley, inarguably the best debater television has ever known (even when he lost), begins ill-prepared for the attacks Vidal launches on conservatism and Buckley himself. Although he did not have time to effectively counter during the Republican convention in Miami, Buckley was more nimble when the scene shifted to the Democratic convention in Chicago.

There, in a heated moment during the most infamous political convention in history, Buckley lashed out at Vidal on live TV, pointedly insinuating that his rival was a homosexual who was about to get his ass kicked (that's the nice way of summarizing it). Vidal had it coming: He had called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" seconds earlier. For the rest of his days, the outburst haunted Buckley, who was always a cool customer no matter the opponent. But the shockwave caused by his remarks became a galvanizing realization for television, for politics and for commentary.

Best of Enemies is great fun. There's not a lot to it outside of archival footage and some contemporary interviews, but if you're a political junkie, it's a terrific walk through history. It's worth noting how unfortunate it is that the personal nature of the debates is what stuck with the viewing public and television executives, not the intellectual heft of the combatants. Particularly with the rise of cable news, right-left debates became less about ideas and ideals and more about punishing jabs. Too bad they're neither as graceful as the 1968 vintage nor as fun to watch.

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