I was almost alone in the London cinema currently showing Best of Enemies, the documentary made about the life-long clash between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. There is something antique about the slightly discolored clips from old television shows in which the two of them go hammer and tongs for one another. Something of the Sixties and Seventies, a period when values and behavior and even appearances were suddenly in flux and became unpredictable. These two men held irreconcilable views about these things and in their way were genuinely representative, as it were, spokesmen. Each evidently held the other in contempt and both were set on a complete intellectual demolition of the opponent.
The documentary made clear that the essential difference separating Buckley and Vidal was morality. Buckley believed there are such things as right and wrong, duties and responsibilities, and that human beings are to be judged by their response to these realities. Vidal had the much easier role of dismissing morals altogether. For him, there was no right or wrong, no duties or responsibilities, and the only guideline he could offer was never to refuse an opportunity for sex.
Bill Buckley’s grace and easy smile contrasted with Vidal’s aggression. From personal experience, I can vouch that it was a pleasure to be in Bill’s company. On the other hand, whenever I met Vidal I promised myself to avoid him in future, never again to have to listen to him vilifying America, its empire, its political incompetence, its ignorant citizens. A boastful egomaniac, he and his writing amount to consolidated sneering from a position of assumed superiority.
Yet isn’t it Vidal’s absence of moral code having the greater input? Best of Enemies gives insight into the deterioration that allows the President of the United States to sign an agreement, any agreement, with a tyranny like the Iranian regime, and go on in the same spirit of superiority to claim that it is the right and even principled thing to do.