Viewers flipping channels on television during the presidential election cycle are likely to catch colorful, outspoken pundits discussing civil rights, income equality and culture wars—but we’re not talking about 2015, but 47 years ago.
A documentary opening this week in South Florida proves that old adage in politics, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Best of Enemies” offers a fascinating analysis of the events and lasting effects of 10 live debates between conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal, broadcast on ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions.
The move was gutsy for the network, which was stuck in third place or even “fourth, but there were only three networks,” as a retired executive pointed out on camera, later joking, “The way to end to the Vietnam War would be to put it on ABC and it would be over in 13 weeks.”
Equally bold was the casting of two “public intellectuals.” Buckley was editor of the “National Review,” considered the father of the modern conservative movement, and Vidal, a frustrated politician, celebrated author and screenwriter, and coincidentally, in-law of former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Vidal was a particularly daring—if not perfectly suited choice—a gay bon vivant who had recently authored “Myra Breckenridge,” a scathing satirical novel about the evils of big business and featuring a transsexual protagonist.
The only point the two could agree, besides their antipathy for each other, was that the country was splitting at the seams. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated and cities were burning. The country was mired in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. The sexual revolution was marching forward and women were demanding lives outside of the home.
The Republicans chose Miami Beach as the location to anoint their candidate, Richard Nixon, the first time their convention had been held below the Mason Dixon Line.
As delegates politicked amid palm trees and sandy beaches, Vidal launched the first attack, a familiar line in 2015. “Can a political party based almost entirely on greed nominate a candidate that a majority could vote?”
He accused Republicans of attacking the poor and then shedding crocodile tears for their situation. Buckley blustered back, sending ratings through the roof.
The verbal sparring continued in Chicago weeks later when Democrats met to choose a leader in the vacuum left by RFK’s death. Like modern days, the convention featured celebrities like actor Paul Newman and playwright Arthur Miller.
Mayor Richard Daley had the city locked down as violence flared, leading to one of the most powerful moments in the film: Aretha Franklin flubbing the words to the National Anthem amid scenes of riot police beating back protesters.
In the studio, tension also built, leading to Buckley’s infamous meltdown. After Vidal accused him of being a “crypto Nazi,” Buckley lashed out, calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening physical violence.
Again, in a brilliant choice from filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, the speechless expressions of the many experts featured in the film, punctuate the gravity of the vicious (for the time) ad hominem attack, launched in front of 10 million viewers.
Afterwards, Buckley admitted his race was pulsing, while Vidal quipped, “I guess we gave them their money’s worth.”
The episode was one from which both men would be scarred. Buckley attempted to justify his anger in a 12,000 word essay in “Esquire” magazine, answered by Vidal’s own piece. Lawsuits would follow. In his final episode of “Firing Line” more than 30 years later, Buckley was left speechless when the episode was recalled, while Vidal would watch recordings of the debates with his biographer a la Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”
As the final credits roll, the many pundits and experts noted the lasting effects of the debates on modern political news coverage. In 1969, television was still a “public square” where Americans gathered to watch the events of the day. No network again aired gavel-to-gavel coverage of a nominating convention, turning to their own commentators. And the advent of cable and the Internet allows us to group into like-minded communities of concern, tuning out opposing viewpoints.
The issues remain the same, but will never be argued by “public intellectuals” in the same way again.
“Best of Enemies” opens Sept. 4 at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., and O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71st St. The film opens Sept. 11 at Stonzek Theater at Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave. For more information, go to BestOfEnemiesFilm.com.