Maybe they were frenemies; it was the impression I had received, the only time I ever saw Gore Vidal 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 "...you 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. 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.
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