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film-lead-1532Buckley vs. Vidal changes TV news in smart doc ‘Best of Enemies’

How has the pseudo-journalism of Fox News risen to the powerful role of Kingmaker in next year’s GOP presidential politics? Blame it on Gore Vidal. The late author, historian, and stalwart liberal commentator would, of course, be horrified to think he was in any way responsible for Fox News. But the intriguing documentary Best Of Enemies makes a persuasive case for the idea that a series of televised “debates” between Vidal and his equally erudite, arch-conservative rival, William F. Buckley Jr., during the 1968 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions, ushered in the present era of biased, adversarial political broadcasting that spawned Fox News.

Filmmakers Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) and Robert Gordon very clearly set the stage. Social, political, and cultural stakes were high, in the charged and fateful summer of ’68. The Vietnam War was raging, students were marching in the streets, and the political landscape had been thrown into chaos by Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek a second term. It was the era of Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, a time when, notes onscreen interviewee Todd Gitlin, “the [news] outlet in which people had the most confidence was television.”

Of the [only] three networks to which American viewers had access, CBS and NBC were the alpha dogs. A distant third was ABC, “the Budget Car Rental of TV news,” says one observer. (The makeshift ABC studio set up at the Republican convention in Miami Beach was so chintzy, it collapsed.) Desperate to do something to boost ratings, network bigwigs hit upon a scheme that, the filmmakers argue, “changed television forever.”

Notorious right-wing ideologue Buckley hosted the TV interview series “Firing Line,” where he savaged political opponents, and founded the National Review magazine, which launched the modern conservative movement. Cultural gadfly and leftist champion Vidal, cousin to Jackie Kennedy, playwright, script doctor, and author of many volumes of serious fiction, was at the time most famous for the satirical Hollywood novel Myra Breckenridge, with its transgendered heroine. The idea to team them up for a series of five nightly debates from the Miami convention, and five more from the Democratic convention in Chicago, was intended to cause fireworks. And, boy, did it.

What ABC thought it was getting was a series of smart political debates from a pair of eggheads on opposite sides of the issues, in an era when Americans—even TV viewers—were thought to be less anti-intellectual than they are now. What the network got was spectacle, close encounters between two waspish dueling agendas as Vidal and Buckley baited, berated, and egged each other on. They were “matter and anti-matter,” notes one observer, whose on-air sessions found them debating “the mores of the country.”

Things were relatively civil at the GOP convention that chose Richard Nixon as its candidate. Vidal noted the party line was “based almost entirely on greed.” Buckley played to the constituency he’d discovered as a failed opponent to Republican mayor John Lindsay of New York—rich, angry, white, and male. (In one illuminating aside, we learn that “lady delegates” received instructions on “how to appear vivid, but not garish” on TV.)

But things heated up in Chicago, where bloody confrontations in the streets changed the dialogue from politics to the Vietnam War. Vidal warned that “the United States Empire” was headed for disaster. Buckley praised the “restraint” of Chicago cops who were beating anti-war protestors senseless. Their ninth debate rapidly devolved into name-calling, as epithets like “crypto-Nazi” and “queer” were flung about; it ended when Buckley lost it on-air, promising Vidal he would “Sock you in your goddamned face!”

It wasn’t exactly reasoned political discourse. But ABC got the ratings it was after, launching the era of dueling TV pundits. (The weekly 60 Minutes segment “Point-Counterpoint,” featuring liberal Shana Alexander and conservative James J. Kilpatrick, was so popular throughout the 1970s that it was spoofed on Saturday Night Live, with Dan Aykroyd addressing cohort Jane Curtain with the infamous line, “Jane, you ignorant slut.”) But the filmmakers leave us with a sobering sense of what we’ve lost since, as a national community of diverse opinions, as legitimate TV journalism is replaced by rabid Fox News-style partisanship.


*** (out of four).

Documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. With William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. A Magnolia release. Rated R. 87 minutes. 

LINE OF FIRE William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions.

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