Best of Enemies | Pittsburgh City Paper

Best of Enemies

A documentary looks at the 1968 televised debates between Buckley and Vidal, and what those contentious shows wrought

click to enlarge Best of Enemies
For the left: Gore Vidal

Those bemoaning the noisy state of public political discourse these days would be well served by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary Best of Enemies. The film takes a look at an antecedent of where we are today, namely the series of live televised debates that ABC News ran during its coverage of the 1968 presidential conventions.

To facilitate a discussion, ABC hired two well-known intellectuals of opposite political stripes: William F. Buckley Jr., publisher of the conservative National Review, and liberal novelist Gore Vidal. It was rancorous from the very first words, when Vidal asked about the Republicans: “Can a political party based entirely on greed …” Subsequent debates grew more contentious, until the infamous moment that Buckley lost his cool and physically threatened Vidal.

Appalling behavior but “good TV,” and the film notes this moment as significant in the eventual coarsening of political discourse (provided, ironically, by a pair of eggheads). And in a broader sense, Buckley and Vidal also ushered in the now-familiar era of “identity politics,” as each staked out a side, not in the party, but around issues. This film is a must for those interested in politics, media and the intersection of the two, but it’s also a fascinating (and weirdly entertaining) sliver of American history that warrants a look by all.