Back in 1960s America there were three major news networks NBC, CBS and ABC, though as one talking head says in reference to ABC, “There are three networks but if there were four, they’d be fourth.” At the time, networks still provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of political party conventions, but ABC, lacking the resources the other two major networks had, was only able show a few hours of political party conventions in the evening.
To save their struggling network, they would have to do something drastic, something that had never been done before. And that is exactly what they did during the 1968 conventions, hiring the flamboyant left-wing author Gore Vidal and ultra-conservative editor of the right-wing magazine, National Review, William F. Buckley to debate in a ten-night after convention special.
This event is said to be the first real attempt at political punditry and this documentary is a behind the scenes look at it. Set across actual archival footage of the debates, the film is both a character exploration of Buckley and Vidal themselves as well as a fascinating examination of how punditry became the way it is today.
Buckley once asked if there was anyone he would consider not debating and responded: “A communist or Gore Vidal.” In a brilliant and conniving move, ABC asked the two to come on and they agreed. The reason was quite simple: because they actually wanted to destroy each other as Christoper Hitchens notes in the film: “There was nothing feigned about the mutual antipathy, they really did despise each other.”
It became clear early on in the debates that it was not about the convention but about how both men saw the state of America at the time and how their political philosophy fit (or didn’t) into the landscape of political rhetoric – and both these men disagreed vehemently with the other. This point reaches its apex when Buckley, upon being called a “crypto-nazi” by Vidal, responds with the threat of physical violence on live television.
That instance of a violent threat would haunt Buckley for the rest of his life, eternally being dumbfounded as to why he reacted the way he did. In Vidal’s mind, after that moment he had won.
The point that directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville are trying to make in Best of Enemies is quite clear and is well-taken and a valid one: there has been a degeneration in political coverage, having morphed into vapid shouting matches. Watching CNN, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with this point, but there is indeed something lacking in their argument.
The real focus of the film clearly is to look at how we argue about politics not about the content of those arguments. As Ben Burgis from Counterpunch says in his article about the film: “you can’t separate the two without being misleading.” Yes, Buckley was intemperate but the content of his arguments was toxic.
In the film, Vidal wants to paint Buckley as racist but we are not sure why. We know Buckley may have said troubling things about the civil rights movement, but that is about it. What we do not know is the examples of white supremacist policies he wrote about in the National Review. The film lacks a lot of context in that regard in more ways than one.
The film almost falls short of wanting to go back to a period where the centrist, status quo media ruled the airwaves (it, of course, still kind of does, but not to the extent it did in the 60s). The film decries ABC’s move as a move towards the destruction of television discourse, but I would argue that it might have served to expand debate. It also, of course, has its negatives as we all know.
In sum, the critique falls somewhat short as we are left with little context for both men’s political ideologies, but that is of course not the point of the film. Despite this, it is an entertaining film and an interesting look at the relationship of both men who absolutely despised each other as well as an interesting story of television history that deserves to be watched.
Feature image courtesy of ABC