Saturday, October 08, 2016

Elite Frenemies?

     Maybe they were frenemies; it was the impression I had received, the only time I ever saw Gore Vidal[1] and William F. Buckley, Jr. share a TV screen, late in their lives and careers.  They lit up, clearly pleased to not have to pull any punches: they knew they were well-matched.  Oh, the blades were concealed; no blood was shed.  But the daggers were there, keen, pointed and deftly wielded.

     Possibly too they were too well-matched.  Possibly each man saw in the other a kind of terribly-distorted reflection of himself.  Both elites, though from families only a generation or three in from the rough, they viewed the American government with a proprietorial air.  A crueler eye might suppose they were both concerned that the poor and under-represented were about ready to start eating the rich, and Buckley and Vidal only disagreed over the best way to prevent the process.  But I think it ran deeper; I think they both worried the very soul of the country was in danger of being lost.

     Last night I watched and enjoyed the documentary Best Of Enemies, which has the Buckley-Vidal ABC-TV debates from the 1968 Republican and Democrat conventions at its core.  Long story short, in '68, ABC was an also-ran network, in third place nationally only because there was no lower spot. Literate and charming in their individual ways, Vidal and Buckley loathed one another, loved the United States (also each in their own very different way) and the network figured they'd make for good television.

     It was compelling TV, anyway; face-to-face, Buckley called Vidal "feline" and was in turn painted as a war-monger -- no, make that a nuclear warmonger.  In their better moments, the sparring was marvelous; at their lowest ebb--

     I had thought it was during their first debate.  I had thought it was in 1964.  I thought civil relations between the two had improved.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  In the next-to-last debate, the urbane gentlemen worked themselves down to barroom argument.  In the midst of a rising dispute about not only freedom of speech but how one ought to react to persons who pushed the boundaries of it, Vidal -- perhaps a bit too comfy with himself from a habit of rehearsing debate zingers to appreciative newsmen -- called Buckley "the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of...," far more serious fighting words between men who had both served during WW II than we might grasp today.  Buckley rose to the bait, calling Vidal out with " queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in the goddamn face, and you'll stay plastered."  Live, on network television, in 1968.  Howard K, Smith, the abruptly-onscreen face of ABC's news coverage, looked as if he had swallowed a spider. 

     Nor did the feud end there.  The two sparred and escalated in the pages of Esquire, which led to a matched set of lawsuits that went for years, right down to the wire until the magazine (also named in the suits) settled their part and left the men a way out.

     But there's a note of sadness.  In later life, Buckley expressed regret over his word choice[2].  In later life, Vidal kept a series of framed photographs of the two men debating -- on the wall over the bathtub in his Italian home.  Outliving his opponent, Vidal's poison-pen thumbnail Buckley eulogy to a reporter held this wistful gem: "...hell is bound to be a livelier place..."

    With both of them gone, the world is a less-lively place.  Neither was entirely comfortable with directions American party politics has taken; Vidal the flaming liberal went so far as to observe, "...essentially, there is no difference between the two parties."  Mind you, he thought them both too right-wing, too concerned with "property," in the sense of what those who controlled the parties already owned: most of the country. He had a point.

     Moderns will find much to disagree with in the expressed views of both over time; but so did they, growing and changing with the times.  The two men were snobs, they were elites, they were, in many senses, effete.  But they loved this country.  They loved language, and accusing one another of maltreating it. They were, when on their best behavior, delightful to watch clashing swords.  They were never going to be friends.

     Best of Enemies offers an insightful glimpse of both men, in the kind of documentary that has become all too scarce: a lot of material straight from the original sources and speculation only on the part of interviewees.  If you want to see history while it's still settling, this film is for you.
1.  Almost Eugene Louis Gore Vidal, Jr., by the way, and aren't we all fortunate to have been spared that? You can thank him, as it was changed by his own choice.
2. Of course, he went on to say Gore Vidal was "an evangelist for bisexuality," which is indeed accurate.  Harsh, perhaps, but fair; and there's William F. Buckley, Jr. for you in a nutshell.


waepnedmann said...

Thanks for the recommendation.

Guffaw in AZ said...

No mention of cryptofascism?


Roberta X said...

I'm pretty sure Vidal managed to slip it in -- as Buckley did with accusations of perversion and pandering. They both knew where to hit. This was the Major Leagues.

Anonymous said...

"The two men were snobs, they were elites, they were, in many senses, effete. But they loved this country."

It seems the current crop of presidential candidates also love this country.

Unfortunately for our country, it's the same kind of love that O.J. had for Nicole...

fast richard said...

My memory of Gore Vidal is mostly from seeing him on the Dick Cavett show which I always watched on the black and white TV in my parents bedroom, while the rest of the family was watching whatever normal shows were on at the same time. Vidal always came across as an urbane but vicious asshole, the sort who would convince me to take Norman Mailer's side in a dispute just out of spite.

Buckley, I knew from Firing Line, which I must have watched occasionally from the very beginning. I was never a regular watcher, but I remember seeing it when I was fairly young, early teens or so. I think it started in syndication when I was about 13 and I couldn't have been much older than that when I first saw it.

What struck me about that documentary was the way they tried to make Buckley seem less gracious than he ever was, and downplayed Vidal's mean streak. Vidal's Cripto-Nazi insult was both more vicious and more in character than Buckley's response. I don't think someone watching that documentary would necessarily understand just how bad calling someone a Nazi was at the time, regardless of what prefix might be applied.

Both men were quite arrogant, but while Buckley regretted his outburst, I don't think Vidal ever regretted any of his many insults.

Roberta X said...

Indeed. As debaters, they were well-matched, but where Buckley was a pillar of society, Vidal's hold was nor nearly so secure, which is one way to become an "urbane but vicious asshole." They were both cat-and-mouse debaters; Vidal was much less disinclined to use low blows. He had a lot less to lose.

There's a story about Lee Radziwill responding to a request from gossip columnist Liz Smith that she intervene in a feud between Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, both well-respected writers at the time. Radziwill replied, "Oh, honey, what do we care? They're just a couple of faggots."

This excuses nothing and I think Gore Vidal held many execrable notions. It does, however, begin to explain him.

In some ways, they were both Bond villains, bigger on the screen than in real life (but hardly small even there) and I miss that. What've we got now? Twits and nitwits. Lightweights. I'd rather have a few more like them.

fast richard said...

Yeah, I'm not sure who there is today to compare to someone like Vidal, people who are interesting even if I don't like them. I think I look elsewhere for interesting people, no longer on mass media, but mostly in the nooks and crannies of the internet.