Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Best of Enemies
Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon have directed a documentary "Best of Enemies" that captures an era. It features two larger than life figures that were thriving when our 1960 TV sets were truly windows into the world. Through the verbal pummeling of William F. Buckley from the right and Gore Vidal from the left, our microwave like sets sizzled like baked potatoes and were set aflame.
There were just three networks and the smaller third, ABC, was failing. In 1968, the network was left out from covering the national conventions and needed a boost. Why not get Gore Vidal to debate Buckley, the nation's foremost conservative?
A group of ten televised debates were confirmed, covering both the democratic and republican conventions. Vidal, a kind of underdog against Buckley, studied intently for his attack while the showman of The Right, waited for the strike.
The film is glib, concise and eye-popping at times. The events are given in short entertaining bursts rather like a collage in motion. Though we may very well be overburdened by politics of late, this film is no tedious draught upon the brain. The drama unfolds with a swift potency and doesn't belabor or lag upon extraneous detail.
Here is Gore Vidal, a Byronic figure who abhors labels of any kind, be they definitions of sexual orientation or ledgers of rule. In Rome, he takes to his oratory olive grove on a cliff's edge. As the sea smiles sardonically below, Vidal sharpens his manicured nails.
In the other corner is Buckley, a self made patrician, Yale alumnus, and editor of the National Review who upholds Law and Order in capital letters. His sophisticated easy drawl at times, obscures toxicity within. One can clearly see how this evolved into gripping TV, like nothing seen in a box before or since.
During the Chicago convention, the streets were crumbling with screaming yippees and police brutality. In one single notorious instant when Buckley derided the protestors in their raising of the Vietcong flag, Vidal quipped that Buckley was a "crypto-nazi." Buckley snapped back at Vidal, snarling "queer!" and threatening bodily harm.
At the time, this was perilously close to hate speech.
A very personal war was declared that Buckley never forgot until the moment of death. The two sparred in Esquire magazine with countering articles and litigation.
The startling thing is the realization that these two grandiose gladiators are mirrors of the other: both Buckley and Vidal are elitist and long nosed with speech of silver and above the rough and tumble fray. Each one perhaps saw their verbal energies in the other and increased the vitriol, the volume and the hate.
"Best of Enemies" hints that the only winners were the TV viewers who were universally informed, captivated and entertained in watching something that was half voyeurism, half bloodsport.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org