“Best of Enemies,” which was shown at last Wednesday’s Pizza and Politics session, is a 2015 documentary about the 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. Vidal was a prominent novelist with many left-leaning views. Buckley was the founder and editor of National Review and a prominent conservative intellectual.
The documentary focuses on the relationship between the two men. That relationship can be described with a single word: hatred. Every interaction the two men have is marked with utter contempt for one another. It starts early in the film. Their early interactions had apparently been either brief or indirect, but were consistently hostile. For instance, while Vidal was a guest on a television program, he mocked Buckley’s mannerisms and trans-Atlantic accent.
However, it was with their debates in 1968 that the hatred apparently really developed. The film relates how Vidal studied Buckley and tested zingers on journalists in preparation for the debates because he saw Buckley and conservatives more generally as dangerous. In contrast, Buckley went on a cruise and did no special preparation.
The debates quickly degenerated into ad hominems. Vidal rhetorically asked whether the Republican Party, supposedly devoted to the concept of human greed, would be able to win a national election. Buckley remarked that the author of “Myra Breckinridge” would know something about human greed. “Myra Breckinridge” is a satirical novel about a man who became a woman who becomes a man again. Buckley repeatedly called the novel pornographic throughout the film, which might not have been much of an exaggeration based on the clips from the book’s movie shown in the documentary.
By the time of the debates for the Democratic convention, Buckley had caught up on research. He presented his opponent with a writing from Robert Kennedy, who also hated Vidal. The move was meant to distract Vidal, but Vidal remained unphazed.
The climax of the film focuses on an argument during the ninth of ten debates. Vidal had been arguing that Chicago was like a Soviet police state. That complaint came after response by the Chicago police after protesters had raised the Viet Cong flag. Buckley defended the police, noting that some of the protesters were advocating the killing of marines. After the moderator asked how people raising a Nazi flag during WWII would have been treated, and after Vidal and Buckley argued for a brief time, Vidal told Buckley that “the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” To that, Buckley responded, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face.”
The film only touches on their last debate, and they had little direct contact for the rest of their lives. However, for years they were involved in a defamation by Buckley against Vidal and Esquire, which had published some dubious claims by Vidal against Buckley. The hatred between the two never ended; when Buckley died, Vidal said that “hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins, forever, those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”
The film’s focus on the relationship between the two men had a few advantages. For one thing, watching the sparring between them was thoroughly entertaining, though perhaps in some sort of sick way. Also, the film refrained from treating either Vidal or Buckley as the antagonist. Doing so would have been easy. Vidal seemed to have started the feud, deliberately provoked Buckley and had no sense of grace. Buckley did not at all refrain from ad hominems, reacted completely inappropriately with a slur and the threat of violence and came off as petty with the lawsuit. Rather, instead of blaming either side, the film interviewed people close to both individuals and told a story.
However, in focusing so much on their relationship, the viewer is left wondering what exactly to take away from the film. The film tries to connect the debates between the two to the rise of partisan and combative media today, but the evolution is not strong enough to be compelling. The film spends basically no time explaining the ideological differences between the two, other than in the most general terms. It isn’t at all clear if they ever had substantive debates or if that footage was just edited out. So, “Best of Enemies” was very enjoyable to watch, but viewers wishing to have a broader context will be disappointed.