Another documentary to add to my list of obsessions, Best of Enemies chronicles the televised debates between William Buckley and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968. Seeking higher ratings, ABC pits the intellectual rivals against each other, resulting in heated eruptions of political debate, social criticism, and cultural examination. A clash of the titans indeed.
Although Gore Vidal is a personal hero of mine, Buckley’s intelligence and passion match Vidal’s and the two men are a marvelous pair to behold. The idealogical wrestling and verbal sparring illustrate the breadth and depth of thought these two individuals invested in the role of government, notions of country and citizenship, and what freedom means. Both men were prep school graduates, military veterans, and had run for political office in the United States. They know of what they speak and say exactly what they mean, which is refreshing.
The debates come to a head when Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-nazi”, which rattles Buckley deeply and propels him to lash out with his famous insult :
“Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
The camera squarely holds Vidal’s face as he takes the words in. Layers of intense pleasure and embarrassment ripple underneath the eyes and around the mouth. He wins by shaking Buckley to the core, but becomes visibly shaken by Buckley’s unhinged retort. Vidal appears as the cat the ate the canary, but he chokes on the incisive barbs of this particular canary’s feathers.
The men remain rivals for the rest of their lives.