Buckley, Vidal, and the Long, Hot Summer of ’68

Best of Enemies (Magnolia Pictures)
From the September 7, 2015, issue of NR

If you were an alert reader of the November 6, 2000 issue of National Review, the conservative journal founded by William F. Buckley Jr., you might have turned the final page, refreshed from another serving of cogent thought and elegant prose, to find, on the back cover, a truly shocking sight: a full-page ad for Absolut vodka featuring a color portrait, taken by Annie Leibovitz, of the far-left novelist and provocateur Gore Vidal.

How could this be? I wondered at the time. Wasn’t Vidal, in the superhero terminology of my youth, WFB’s arch-nemesis? Hadn’t the two men clashed spectacularly on television, in print, and in the federal courts, keeping up, over three decades’ time, the century’s longest-running and most acrimonious literary feud? How could Bill Buckley possibly allow his magazine to be given over to a flattering image of that man — now gray and paunchy, gaze averted, right index finger pressed eruditely to temple — as though Gore Vidal, within the precincts of National Review, were any innocuous figure from the world of advertising, like Juan Valdez or Cap’n Crunch?

Within a few days I had the chance to ask Buckley myself. We were seated in his East 73rd Street maisonette, three Fox News cameras surrounding us, for an hour-long interview granted, at my request, to mark — not celebrate, he noted wearily — his 75th birthday. WFB, too, was now gray and paunchy. Buckley almost a decade earlier had awarded me a grant to begin research on a book about the Nixon presidency, but our contacts thereafter had been sporadic. As an interviewer, I knew that asking William F. Buckley Jr. about Gore Vidal was something that was Simply Not Done and, at the same time, something that Simply Had to Be Done. I didn’t relish it — but I did come prepared.

RELATED: Best of Enemies Makes Clear the Moral Gulf that Separated Buckley from Vidal

My opening arrived after a colloquy on the perils of meeting one’s heroes, which had once led my host to forgo an audience with Evelyn Waugh. “I’m terribly glad I did,” Buckley told me, “because I think he’s such a magnificent person/writer/presence — but really sort of an ugly man. And I think experience tends to bear out, at least half the time, that famous people are not very pleasant people.” “It hasn’t been my experience today,” I assured him. “Well, that’s nice to hear,” he replied. WFB was foul of mood — quite in contrast with my previous experiences with him and perhaps owing to the recent surgery that had left his left ear bloodied and stitched, concealed by our camera placement — but I plowed ahead.

Rosen: Now speaking of unpleasant famous people, I was unsure, I must confess, how I would get into the following subject with you –

WFB: You won’t.

Nervous laughter, followed by my Serious Newscaster’s voice, jokingly announcing the program’s abrupt end; but my joke failed to defuse the tension. “I don’t talk about Vidal,” Buckley said. “I knew that was coming up.  I could tell the way you framed it.” “Well, but your own magazine gives the introduction for it! I was fairly stunned to see this,” whereupon I held aloft my copy of National Review, the Leibovitz portrait facing WFB.

WFB: Well, we don’t — we don’t govern the Absolut vodka publishing schedule.

Rosen: But certainly the magazine can control which ads it puts on its back cover and which it doesn’t, yes?

WFB: The answer is no. We would not deny an advertiser, not unless it was obscene. Are you raising the question of whether a picture of him is obscene eo ipso?

Encouragement: WFB’s playful resort to Latin, and his return to the themes that had pervaded his televised clashes with Vidal, seemed to hint at some openness to revisiting the affair. “Well,” I replied, aping the great debates of 1968, “if one characterizes his work as pornography, then perhaps a photograph of its creator is.”

WFB laughed charitably, but soon dispelled my hopes. I mentioned that a relative of Gore Vidal’s had recently told me that she believed Vidal wanted, at long last, to reconcile with Buckley. “Would you be open to that prospect?” I asked. Buckley was — for once — flummoxed. “I think it’s just” — a moment’s hesitation — “it’s simply inconceivable.  It’s, it’s a closed chapter.” A mirthless chuckle escaped his lips before WFB moved to terminate the subject altogether, treating me, in so doing, to a trademark Obscure Word: “There hasn’t been any propitiatory impulse that I’ve discerned, and I haven’t looked for it.”

Except that the chapter never really closed. When Buckley died, in February 2008, at 82, Vidal — who had been writing openly about his homosexuality since the 1940s and was a tireless champion, in and out of his work, of a strain of absolute libertinism — celebrated with what called “a happy little jig upon William F. Buckley’s grave.” In what must rank among the most bilious obituaries ever published, Vidal falsely asserted that WFB “was often drunk and out of control,” insinuated that he was a closeted homosexual (“a hysterical queen”), and labeled him “dishonorable . . . a spontaneous liar on any subject that his dizzy brain might extrude.” “RIP WFB — in hell,” Vidal signed off — but not before assailing WFB’s grieving child, the novelist Christopher Buckley, as “creepy” and “brain-dead.” 

After Vidal died, in July 2012, at 86 — he had been born the month before WFB — the darkest corners of the contretemps were thrown open to the harshest light. Chronicling a dispute over Vidal’s estate, the New York Times reported that Vidal’s nephew, filmmaker Burr Steers, believed Vidal was “terrified” that Buckley possessed “evidence” that Vidal had had sexual relations with underage men. “I know Buckley had a file on him that Gore feared,” Steers said. The paper also quoted Vidal’s half-sister, Nina Straight — who had loaned Vidal $1 million to prosecute the lawsuits with Buckley, never repaid — as saying that the conduct in question was akin to “Jerry Sandusky acts.”

Around that same time, Christopher Buckley reported having excavated from WFB’s disarrayed study a filing cabinet “bursting to the seams” and labeled “Vidal Legal.” “Into the dumpster it went,” Christopher wrote in The New Republic, “and I still remember the sigh of relief upon heaving it in.”

Now from Magnolia Pictures comes the breezy 88-minute documentary Best of Enemies. Utilizing archival film, still photographs, contemporaneous news clips and outtakes, original interviews, and of course footage from the televised debates that rocked America, filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville neatly capture the characters and controversy these literati somewhat improbably embodied. While this is a thoroughly modern documentary — beautifully framed and stylishly edited, with an amusing score evoking the insidious beeping-and-humming sounds of the Clockwork Orange era — it deftly catapults the viewer back in time, to the tumultuous 1960s: the passions and polemics that surrounded LBJ, Nixon, Vietnam, political assassinations, race riots, and the counterculture, a period when the Republic herself seemed to be coming undone.

Amid all that, in the riotous summer of 1968 and with little left to lose in their hapless pursuit of Walter Cronkite at CBS News and Huntley-Brinkley at NBC News, the suits at ABC News signed Buckley and Vidal — for $10,000 each (about $70,000 today) — to serve as commentators at the Republican and Democratic conventions. Competitors denounced ABC’s gimmickry.

MOVIE REVIEW: Armond White on Best of Enemies

The concerned party who took the enterprise most seriously was Vidal. Buckley mistakenly approached the sessions as another in the long line of public debates he had already conducted on the national stage, with the likes of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, the kind of event for which WFB reckoned he could just show up, after a week of yachting, and do his thing. Vidal, by contrast, prepared like an assassin. He hired a researcher, typed and practiced his zingers, dressed for success, and silently resolved to respect none of the formal rules of debate that constrained his opponent.

Compounding matters was the exceedingly modest view taken by ABC anchorman Howard K. Smith of the role of the moderator. The combatants’ isolation from Responsible Authority was pronounced, with WFB and Vidal seated beside each other at the opposite end of the studio from Smith, before a cheap backdrop, separated only by a coffee table. They were mostly allowed to go at each other without interruption, absent the organizing or restraining influence of a skillful moderator.

Even as the film declares Vidal the winner, we are confronted with ample evidence of his underhandedness as a debater.

Naturally, things devolved swiftly. The shattering moment for which Buckley–Vidal is chiefly remembered actually came in the ninth of ten televised debates the two men held across the ’68 conventions. Best of Enemies helpfully draws on almost all of them, vividly exposing the dynamics on display for most of this Mid-Century Modern version of Lincoln–Douglas. Even as the film declares Vidal the winner, we are confronted with ample evidence of his underhandedness as a debater and, correspondingly, with the recurring and highly unusual sight of WFB at sea, as it were — knocked off his stride by an opponent who reveled in playing dirty. Gamely, if naïvely, Buckley struggled to impose on the unwieldy exchanges, in the face of Howard K. Smith’s abdication, the kind of “proper” debate structure under which WFB was used to competing — returning the discussions to the conventions, systematically deconstructing Vidal’s rhetoric — until finally Buckley succumbed, in anger, to provocations as vicious and direct as those outside the studios, on the streets of Miami and Chicago.

Thus we see Vidal as the first to interrupt his opponent, the first to personalize the exchanges (“your kind of odd neurosis”), and the first to deny the other fellow his very right to exist: He opened by describing Republicans as “a political party based almost entirely upon human greed.” WFB immediately returned the favor, saying: “It seems to me that the author of Myra Breckinridge [Vidal’s bestselling 1968 novel about a transsexual] is well acquainted with the imperatives of human greed.” By the second debate, Vidal’s disrespect for the rules awakened even the sleepy Smith: “Let Mr. Buckley finish his sentence.”

When Vidal began a quote from one of Buckley’s columns but huffily refused to utter the words National Review, Buckley grinned: “We know that you’d like nothing to sully your lips.” Vidal chortled and shot back lustily: “You’ll eat it first.” After Vidal again spoke of “your rather bloodthirsty neurosis,” WFB diagnosed Vidal’s “spiritual world of stagnation,” then gave voice to the irresoluble problem the conservative faced in engaging a world-class provocateur who proudly impugned not just the Republican party but the United States. “Mr. Vidal, I have no doubt that there is somebody in Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village who considers that your caricature is fetching. I don’t,” Buckley said. “I was invited here, and am prepared, to try to talk about the Republican convention. But I maintain that it’s very difficult to do so when you have somebody like this, who will speak in such burps. And he likes to be naughty.”

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The film’s climax, of course, is the two men’s epic 22-minute confrontation on the night of August 28, 1968. The networks had just carried live coverage of a full-on police riot, nightsticks flying, against anti-war demonstrators in the streets and parklands of Chicago. The sickening scenes left both commentators visibly angry and eager to take it out on each other. Vidal likened Chicago to the Soviet Union, prompting Buckley to caution Vidal — and ABC News — against drawing from the “individual and despicable acts” of some policemen a case that there was “implicit totalitarianism in the American system.”

By choosing in this heated moment to defend America, her president, and the Chicago police force, WFB was, in rhetorical terms, doing something quite noble: putting country ahead of cause. After all, the political villains of Chicago, Lyndon Johnson and Mayor Richard Daley, were both machine Democrats, and Buckley could have settled simply for scoring points against the opposing party; but as a movement conservative, he was more dedicated to the bedrock principle of law and order, and he was a patriot where Vidal was an expatriate.

Belying all that, however, was Buckley’s fiercer tone and facial expression than in the previous sessions: Anger was visibly consuming him. Below is my transcription of the critical exchange, as it appears in the slightly edited form in which Best of Enemies presented it:

WFB: If we could all work up an equal sweat, and if you all would be obliging enough to have your cameras handy every time a politician commits demagogy, or every time a labor union beats up people who refuse to join his unions, then maybe we could work up some kind of impartiality in resentment.

Vidal: These people [the protesters] came here with no desire other than anybody’s ever been able to prove than to hold peaceful demonstrations.

WFB: I can prove it. I can prove it. I was fourteen windows above that gang last night, and the chant between eleven o’clock and five o’clock this morning, from four or five thousand voices, was sheer, utter obscenities directed at the president of the United States. I say it is remarkable that there was as much restraint shown as was shown, for instance, last night by cops who were out there for seventeen hours without inflicting a single wound on a single person, even though that kind of disgusting stuff was being thrown at them, and at all of American society.

Here something jolted Smith, the anchorman — one of the famous “Murrow Boys” who had covered Nazi Germany and personally interviewed Hitler — into action. “Mr. Vidal, wasn’t it a provocative act to try to raise the Viet Cong flag in the park, in the film we just saw?” Smith asked. “Raising a Nazi flag in World War II would have had similar consequences.”

Smith’s intervention pleased WFB — he can be seen responding and smiling appreciatively at Smith, as if to say “You get it!” but Vidal drowns out WFB. It was this intervention, however, that introduced the term “Nazi” into this climactic debate and thereby sent it hurtling into depravity — and immortality.

Vidal: People in the United States who happen to believe that United States policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Viet Cong are correct in wanting to organize their country in their own way politically. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad! But I assume that the point of the American democracy is you can express any point of view you want to –

WFB: And some people were pro-Nazi, too. Some people were pro-Nazi –

Vidal: Shut up a minute!

WFB: No, I won’t! Some people were pro-Nazi, and the answer is that they were — they were well treated by people who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care, because you don’t have any sense of identification [crosstalk] –

Vidal: As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that, I will only say that if we can’t have the right of assembly –

Smith: Let’s, let’s, let’s not call names –

WFB: Now listen, you queer — stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered!

Smith: Let’s, let’s stop calling names and let’s get — gentlemen, let’s –

Vidal: Oh, Bill.

WFB: Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography and stop making any allusions of Nazism to somebody who was in the infantry in the last war –

Smith: I beg you to –

Vidal: You were not in the infantry, as a matter of fact — [crosstalk]

As a matter of fact, WFB served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in World War II, but did not serve overseas.

Unquestionably, the Buckley–Vidal confrontation shocked America; never before had 10 million people witnessed anything like it on live TV.

Unquestionably, the Buckley–Vidal confrontation shocked America; never before had 10 million people witnessed anything like it on live TV. A decade later, New York magazine would rank the debates as one of the greatest moments in the history of television to date, right up there with the moon landing and the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. In Best of Enemies, Linda Bridges, a longtime National Review editor and Buckley confidant, recalls how her boss was “shaken that he had reacted that way” to Vidal’s provocations. Reid Buckley, Bill’s brother, aptly notes that in the generation after V-E Day, being called a Nazi was no less a “slur” than being called a “queer.”

Dueling essays by Buckley and Vidal in Esquire ensued, in the summer of 1969, followed by Buckley’s defamation suit and Vidal’s counter-suit; but it was all for naught. The lawsuits ended inconclusively, and history recorded the affair, and continues to do so here, exactly as Buckley feared: The famously urbane wit and champion debater, conservative upholder of order no less than law, lost his temper and committed the unpardonable sin, in the McLuhan age, of exhibiting hotness in a cool medium. WFB had, in short, allowed Vidal to ensconce himself, as the latter’s friend and editor Matt Tyrnauer notes here, “under Bill Buckley’s skin.”

The film closes with all kinds of theorizing — that WFB may really have been the “hysterical queen” Vidal made him out to be, that the Buckley–Vidal clash ushered in the politics and discourse we have today in America and on cable news, respectively. The former (cracked) theory is dispelled convincingly by intimates of WFB; the latter, illustrated here with distorted images of Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow, has become accepted lore in the history of television and the news media.

Certainly, programmers outside ABC took note of the riveting tension, and improved ratings, generated by Buckley–Vidal; and it is unquestionably true that the frequency with which TV debating partners came nearly to blows rose sharply in the decades that followed, to the point where no one much noticed it any more. By the same token, it hardly requires wholesale embrace of the concept of historical inevitability to imagine that we would probably have wound up with the same discourse we have today had Buckley and Vidal never met.   

RELATED: The Vidal Encounter: A Buckley Anomaly

So we needed a good documentary about Buckley and Vidal — far more than the tepid relationship between WFB and Norman Mailer, who appears in Best of Enemies from time to time, warranted the recent book published on that subject — and the filmmakers deserve credit for recognizing as much. They probably believe they strove for true fairness and balance, interviewing partisans of both combatants, portraying both men as equally haunted by the great events of 1968. But the final product suffers the very biases, unstated yet unmistakable, against which WFB aimed from the beginning to stand athwart history, yelling stop.

Cases in point: Gordon and Neville endorse the false notion that Richard Nixon’s winning campaign theme of 1968, “law and order,” a logical reaction to the escalating disorders of the ’60s, was nothing more than thinly disguised race-baiting. And beneath an interviewee’s description of debating as “blood sport,” we see only the image of Buckley, even though Best of Enemies painstakingly exposes Vidal as the more unrestrained, unprincipled combatant. Some insight into the filmmakers’ early conception of the project, a telling clue as to which of the two debaters they regarded as preeminent, may be gleaned from an outtake that was included in the final cut — a device employed throughout, presumably for aesthetic reasons — in which a pair of anonymous hands can be seen clapping one of those striped Hollywood director’s boxes in front of the face of an interviewee (left-wing historian Todd Gitlin). Scrawled on the box in black Sharpie, in the space reserved for the title, was “Vidal v. Buckley.”

One mystery not addressed is why WFB went forward with the programs at all. He’d had previous nasty run-ins with Vidal. The first came in 1962, via sequential appearances on The Jack Paar Tonight Show that witnessed elaborate misrepresentations of WFB’s positions — a fact the viewers of this film couldn’t know because, oddly, the director used only silent footage of Vidal and Buckley appearing on Paar’s set. Two years later, WFB had an unpleasant exchange with Vidal during a joint TV appearance at the GOP convention in San Francisco (Vidal admittedly “egged him on”).

By 1968, when ABC News asked Buckley whether there was anyone alongside whom he would not appear, he specified only one name: Gore Vidal. Buckley later claimed that ABC announced the toxic pairing without informing him in advance. Yet WFB was a man of means for whom $10,000, even then, didn’t amount to all that much money, and he could easily have withdrawn upon learning of Vidal’s involvement, citing breach of understanding by ABC. Perhaps Buckley feared the appearance of ducking Vidal, or perhaps deep down he relished the opportunity to defenestrate his nemesis on nationwide television. It was a question I didn’t get to ask Buckley in our interview.

Howard K. Smith was the first to sum up the great clash, after he finally reasserted control over the proceedings — he lamented the heat shed instead of light, but still proclaimed the debates “worth hearing.” Esquire editor Harold Hayes, who had solicited the dueling and litigious essays by both men that appeared in his magazine’s pages, wrote in a 1970 anthology titled “Smiling through the Apocalypse” that the duel provided “as appropriate a conclusion to the Sixties as any other.” In the Buckley–Vidal confrontation, Hayes saw distilled “the bitterness, jealousy, ambition, and despair of two of our most eloquent sensibilities — the character of America’s collective confusion.” WFB himself aimed lower, but manfully did not excuse himself from his own verdict, rendered in Esquire: “Excessive bitchery can get out of hand.”

— James Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent of Fox News. This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2015, issue of National Review.

National Review magazine content is typically available only to paid subscribers. Due to the immediacy of this article, it has been made available to you for free. To enjoy the full complement of exceptional National Review magazine content, sign up for a subscription today. A special discounted rate is available for you here.

James Rosen — Mr. Rosen is a reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group and the editor of A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (2016), an anthology of essays by William F. Buckley Jr.


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