Best of Enemies Premieres on Independent Lens Monday, October 3
In the summer of 1968, television news changed forever. Dead last in the ratings, ABC News hired two towering public intellectuals to debate each other during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. William F. Buckley Jr. was a leading light of the new conservative movement. Gore Vidal, a Democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, was a leftist novelist and polemicist. Armed with deep-seated distrust and enmity, Vidal and Buckley believed each other’s political ideologies were dangerous for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight battle, they pummeled out policy and personal insult, their explosive exchanges devolving into vitriolic name-calling. Live and unscripted, they kept viewers riveted as Nixon became the Republican nominee in Miami and violence rocked the Democratic convention in Chicago. Ratings for ABC News skyrocketed and a new era in contentious public discourse was born. Directed by Robert Gordon and Academy Award-winning Sundance Film Festival alum Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom), Best of Enemies spotlights the birth of the highbrow blood sport practiced by today’s ever-present pundit television. The film premieres on Independent Lens Monday, October 3, 2016, 9:00-10:30 PM ET (check local listings) on PBS.
“In the focused light of the 1968 national television camera, the seeds were planted for our present media landscape, when the spectacle trumps the content of argument,” says director Robert Gordon. “Each side today, like these two men, sees the other as malignant, promulgating views catastrophic for America; strident partisanship is understood as virile patriotism and compromise is castration. These Vidal-Buckley debates forecast the present state of civic discourse, heated by camera lights and abbreviated by corporate sponsors.”
“Ultimately, this is a story about something I care about deeply; how the way we now ‘talk’ and ‘listen’ to each other through media is in fact corrosive to our society,” says director Morgan Neville. “Sometimes I look around and wonder, ‘What happened to the adults in our culture?’ This film, I hope, offers some clues.”
About the Subjects
William F. Buckley, Jr. was a pillar of the modern conservative movement. He founded National Review magazine in 1955 and, under his editorial direction, it quickly became the brain trust of the political right. His newspaper column, “On the Right,” was widely syndicated for four decades. William F. Buckley’s style of conservatism reached its greatest expression with the Reagan presidency.
Buckley was an early appreciator of television’s reach and hosted his own popular interview program, Firing Line, for over 30 years. He was both magnetic and provocative, with guests from across the arts and political spectrum. He reached a broad audience, and his quirky mannerisms were as celebrated as his sesquipedalian vocabulary.
He coalesced a conservative movement based on traditional Christian thought, a social tendency toward the Libertarian, and laissez-faire economic theory. He was, however, an early “big government conservative,” recognizing the need for a large military during the Cold War, and accepting its ramifications. In his personal life, Buckley was a practicing Roman Catholic who rejected Vatican II and attended a Latin mass. Throughout his life, Buckley was not afraid to rethink his ideas, welcoming integration after initially arguing against it and, later in life, opposing the Iraq War after supporting it.
Buckley came to national renown with his first book, God and Man at Yale, published in 1951 when he was 25. He criticized the liberal bent at his alma mater, arguing for a stronger basis in Christianity. He wrote over 50 books, including a series of popular espionage novels. He died in 2008 at age 82.
Gore Vidal was an iconoclast, smashing gender and political preconceptions in books, theater, essays, movies and political campaigns. Always outside society’s mainstream, in 1948 he shocked even the literati with his third novel, The City and the Pillar, which featured an unapologetic homosexual relationship. Two decades later, his Myra Breckinridge, a paean to pansexuality, shocked the nation and sold millions of copies. On Broadway, in his 1960 play The Best Man, he wrote with biting insight about the deception of America’s political conventions. The play was made into an Academy Award-nominated movie and revived on Broadway in 2001 and 2012, winning major awards both times.
In his childhood, Vidal read to his blind grandfather T. P. Gore, who was serving in Washington DC as the first senator from Oklahoma. Gore ran for political office in 1960 and 1982, an underdog in both races and losing each time. His seven-book US history novel series, including Burr and Lincoln, has been called the biography of our nation. He was a step-brother to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and a White House regular until a row with Bobby Kennedy limited his access.
Traditionally associated with Democrat liberals, Vidal was vociferous in his criticism of both parties, in later years finding little to differentiate the two. A longtime political commentator, Vidal died in 2012 at age 86, saying not long before his death, “If you cut me open, there is ice water in my veins.”