Best of Enemies:When Being Rude Was Much More Dignified 

Crackling fine documentary chronicles famed Buckley/Vidal debates of 1968

Upon hearing of the Feb. 2008 death of his conservative nemesis William F. Buckley, liberal icon Gore Vidal wrote, "I thought that hell will be a livelier place, and that he will be permanently among those he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred." Vidal ended his makeshift obituary of Buckley with, "RIH," or Rest in Hell. Vidal died four years later and there is no doubt if Buckley had outlived his adversary, he would have been equally venomous.

Make no mistake, the Buckley/Vidal feud was no respectful rivalry. Yet, in spite of its litigiousness and sometimes-ugly nature, the conflict had a touch of class. There was a time in this country when rudeness was so much more dignified.

The birth of the Buckley/Vidal feud, which played out on live television in the summer of 1968, is the subject of a new documentary feature film, Best of Enemies, which is a devilishi delight. If you love political punditry and intellectual swordsmanship, this movie is catnip.

Long before the cable television landscape had been laid, most of us culled our information from daily newspapers (even medium-sized cities often had separate morning and afternoon publications) and evening news broadcasts which, during the 1960s, featured Walter Cronkite on CBS and the Huntley/Brinkley Report on NBC. ABC was an afterthought.

"ABC was in third place in the ratings," says former NBC News president Richard Wald in Best of Enemies. "They would have been fourth, but there were only three networks."

The New York Times' columnist Frank Rich put it more plainly: "Somebody once said that the Vietnam War should have been put on ABC. It would have been canceled in 13 weeks."

In their desperation, ABC network executives decided to provide what they called "unconventional convention coverage" of the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions—Democratic frontrunner Robert Kennedy had been assassinated only weeks before—which would ultimately nominate Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey to compete in one of the nation's most bruising presidential campaigns in history. Instead of copying CBS's and NBC's gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions, ABC opted instead for real-time commentary by political opposites.

The conservative entry was Buckley, founder of the National Review magazine and a figure so well-known, he was guest on Woody Allen television specials, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Laugh-In. When ABC executives asked Buckley who he would not appear on-screen with during the coverage, Buckley had two non-starters: Communists and Gore Vidal. So in their wisdom, ABC executives immediately secured Vidal, knowing Buckley wouldn't back out of the fight. They couldn't have been more prescient, and the live debates are the tentpoles of the fast-paced Best of Enemies.

"You have the reputation as the Marie Antoinette of the right wing," Vidal said to Buckley during their first debate.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you're listening to the hob-goblinization of a Marxist," retorted Buckley.

What followed over the next four nights at the Republican convention and four more nights at the Democratic convention were must-see television. The national television audience began to changing the channel from CBS and NBC to ABC in droves to tune in the nightly Buckley/Gore debates. However, things went off-the-boil on the final evening of the Democratic convention when Vidal called Buckley "a pro-war crypto Nazi," prompting Buckley to lean in toward his opponent and bark, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddam face, and you'll stay plastered." You could almost hear jaws hit the floor from coast to coast.

The feud lasted for decades after the July 1968 debates and Best of Enemies chronicles it post mortem as well. Additionally, we are reminded those Buckley/Gore debates were the wellspring for the point/counterpoint debates on CBS's 60 Minutes and, of course, the shouting matches defining cable news for many years to come.

Don't miss Best of Enemies. It's the best of times.

Pin It

Now Playing

Best of Enemies is not showing in any theaters in the area.

Best of Enemies
Rated R · 88 minutes · 2015
Official Site:
Director: Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Producer: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville, Julie Goldman and Clif Philips

What others are saying

  • Comments

    Showing 1-1 of 1


    Comments are closed.

    Trending in the Alternative Press

    © 2019 Boise Weekly

    Website powered by Foundation