The documentary Best of Enemies covers a series of televised face-offs between archconservative William F. Buckley and left-wing novelist Gore Vidal in 1968. Watching it, you learn very little about the political content of those debates. Then again, that’s not the point.
Co-director Gordon is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, but the message of the film is a congenial one for many liberals. Jon Stewart spent much of his tenure on The Daily Show making similar points. The liberals who cheered on Stewart’s take-down of Crossfire and showed up to D.C. for his fairly insipid rally to “restore sanity” will see the same analysis of the media in Best of Enemies.
We’re told that ABC was, in 1968, third among the networks in ratings. “If there had been another, it would have been fourth.” In what’s portrayed as a desperate and tacky bid for viewers, they promised “unconventional coverage” of the Republican and Democratic Conventions. What follows is a fairly simple morality tale. In an era where television is reliably “centrist” and free from controversy, Vidal and Buckley shock viewers with their bitter clash. Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley calls Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch the novelist in the face. In later years, Buckley is shown to be troubled by his own uncouth behavior, while Vidal is unrepentant. The larger point is that the theatrical snarling match between the two set the pattern for the degeneration of political coverage into vapid shouting matches in the ensuing decades. For the most part, Gordon and Neville tell the story in an understated way. The message is left implied until the end, when a long montage—which includes Stewart on Crossfire, various pundits shouting at each other, and an old SNL skit satirizing shouting pundits—beats the viewer over the head with the moral of the story.
In the great tradition of moralists who lovingly linger on the titillating details of immoral behavior, the filmmakers are able to have their cake and eat it too. The entertainment value of Best of Enemies derives from Vidal and Buckley’s gladiatorial approach to political debate, but the point is to righteously condemn them for it.
While the focus of the movie is emphatically not on these men’s political ideas, we’re given what probably adds up to three or four minutes on William F. Buckley, his view of the culture, his role in shaping the modern conservative movement, and so on. The few crumbs of information we’re given about Vidal are comparatively insignificant. We’re told a bit about his novels and his screenwriting, but the data points dispensed by the film about his politics (beyond what he says in the clips of his debates with Buckley) boil down to the facts that (a) Vidal thought it was OK to be gay, (b) he really hated William F. Buckley, and (c) he was “a liberal.”
The clips themselves hint at what a more interesting movie about Buckley and Vidal might look like. We see Vidal saying that the money America could be spending on the alleviation of domestic poverty was being spent on a dangerously unstable attempt to build an overseas Empire. Was he wrong about that? How does his perspective compare with that of the warmongering Buckley in historical hindsight? A better documentary might start with that question. Best of Enemies isn’t interested.
Fair enough, you might say, but let’s take the movie on its own terms. Gordon and Neville’s stated intention was to explore the way we argue about politics, not the political content of those arguments. The problem is that you can’t separate the two without being profoundly misleading. The best possible illustration of this comes when we’re told in the present-day commentary that Vidal was interested in ‘painting’ Buckley as a racist. With no further information, that leaves the viewer with the impression that Vidal was trying to slander Buckley. There’s a brief suggestion that Buckley may have said something or other about the civil rights movement that may have been controversial in some ways, but we certainly don’t get any specifics. We don’t, for example, get this quote from Buckley’s 1957 National Review editorial Why the South Must Prevail.
“[T]he central question is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
Gordon and Neville don’t care whether Vidal was right. They only care that he was intemperate. In staging the confrontations between Vidal and Buckley, ABC committed the original sin that destroyed the civilized news coverage of yore and ushered in decades of shrill shouting on cable news shows.
Why did Vidal call Buckley a Nazi—thus provoking Buckley to homophobic slurs and threats of violence? Best of Enemies only cares that he did. The police rampage against peaceful protesters at 1968’s Democratic Convention in Chicago—the site of Buckley and Vidal’s exchange—was notorious. The term “police riot” was coined to describe it. Buckley didn’t see what the big deal was. So the cops cracked a few hippie heads—so what? In the exchange, Buckley and the moderator both attacked some protesters’ use of the Viet Cong flag and suggested that it was the equivalent of flying the Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal’s point was that Buckley’s views were far closer to being Nazi-like than those of the protesters.
Best of Enemies shows us some aerial stock footage of bombs going off in the jungle, but it certainly doesn’t include images of peasants burned alive by napalm. We don’t learn that the civilian death toll was in the millions, that those jungles were systematically napalmed in a policy that failed in its goal of eliminated guerilla hideouts but succeeded in giving birth defects to an astonishingly high proportion of Vietnamese children, or that by the time the U.S. was driven from the country, the Viet Cong were supported by the overwhelming majority of the population of South Vietnam.
You hardly have to be a Stalinist to, like Vidal and many of the protesters in Chicago, find the Vietnamese side of the war rather more sympathetic than the occupying force trying to bomb them into submission. When the focus is on the substance of the debate rather than its impropriety, Vidal’s point starts to look a lot more plausible. The Viet Cong were peasant revolutionaries struggling against the odds to expel a colonial force that was in the process of inflicting genocide-level civilian casualties on their country. If Nazi analogies had to be made, which side would they be more appropriately be made about—student protesters waving the flag of those revolutionaries, or people like Buckley who thought the solution was to drop even more napalm?
Best of Enemies deplores the shrillness of the debate, and longs for a time when TV political coverage was sensible and centrist. In order to evaluate that critique, we need to start with the questions the movie doesn’t care about. Who was right? Remember that the analogy between the Viet Cong and the Nazis was made first not by Buckley but by the ‘neutral’ moderator. Would it really have been better if that moderator—and other sensible centrist fellows of his ilk—had been the only voices ABC’s viewers got to hear?
There are many things wrong with the political debates on American television, but it’s hard to imagine a Vietnamese napalm victim—or, more recently, an Iraqi with a limb blown off by an American bomb—thinking that the central problem was that critics of our government’s policies were insufficiently calm and polite. As Noam Chomsky has argued for decades, the insidious thing about political discourse in the American mass media is the way that the limits of debate mark any serious opposition to the status quo as out of bounds, as being almost unthinkable. By presenting a vigorous debate within narrow limits, views outside of those limits—such as serious critiques of capitalism and imperialism—are even more effectively marginalized than they would be by straightforward propaganda. What we need is a dramatic expansion of the range of political perspectives we’re exposed to on news channels. That’s precisely the opposite of the lesson Gordon and Neville want us to learn from Best of Enemies.