*. Historians are invested in the idea of there being politically or culturally significant watersheds that act as helpful benchmarks in their chronicles of rise, fall, and transformation. Were the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that ABC News broadcast as part of their coverage of the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions just such a turning point? Or were they more a footnote?
*. The argument that they were important, or at least important enough to be memorialized in this documentary, is made in Best of Enemies. The basic argument is that the Buckley-Vidal debates opened the door for a lot of the noisy, combative talking heads of the punditocracy that would take over television news in the decades to come. In 1968 (generally regarded as a year of turning points) ABC was languishing at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings. Or, as one of the execs interviewed puts it, “ABC was the third of the three networks. It would’ve been fourth, but there were only three.” They needed something to give them a boost. What they came up with was the red meat of intellectual debate packaged as prize-fighting.
*. It worked. The face-offs were a hit. And television news has never looked back. Even in the Internet age what attracts eyeballs is outrage, confrontation, and sensationalism. The deeper question to ask is whether Buckley and Vidal were that far above what came after.
*. They certainly sound different than today’s pundits. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to come off so posh in our current media circus, much less finding commentators able to match their orotundity. But did their highbrow language carry any great depth of thought or analysis? From the evidence I’ve seen, no.
*. While I think both Buckley and Vidal were intellectual heavyweights, and two of the most accomplished essayists of their day, the debates weren’t intellectual in terms of their content but just exercises in snappy put-downs and gotcha! moments. Both men came prepared with their talking points and scripts, and but for the one signature moment — where Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and was called a queer in return, before being threatened with violence — the back-and-forth was just bitchiness. This wasn’t what’s called a constructive debate and the two weren’t even talking to one another. In short, it does feel like a precursor for all that came after, only with people capable of speaking in sentences and using more erudite and precise language. I wouldn’t call them trolls, but the debates here did mark a stage in that devolution.
*. I had to smile at the voicecasting: John Lithgow as Vidal and Kelsey Grammer as Buckley. They weren’t all that necessary as there’s very little reading for them to do, but still.
*. Interesting to note that both men were failed politicians, though it’s probably more precise to say they both ran failed political campaigns (Vidal for Congress in New York in 1960, Buckley for New York City mayor in 1965). Norman Mailer also ran for mayor of New York in 1969. It’s something literary figures did back in the day. Not so much anymore. Today we like talk-radio hosts and television personalities.
*. I was already familiar with the story and had seen videos of the debates, but as a bit of a political junky I found this all nicely done and interesting enough. The “debates” weren’t a world-changing event though, and I came away thinking that they still play better on a small screen.