Best of Enemies, Buckley VS. Vidal: The Historic 1968 ABS News Debates, Christopher Hitchens, Deborah Tannen, Family Guy, For Argument’s Sake: Why Do We Feel Compelled to Fight About Everything?, Godwin's Law, Gore Vidal, history, Howard K. Smith, Lincoln, Myra Breckinridge, Political Discourse, Politics, public intellectual, Richard Nixon, Robert Gordon, Ronald Reagan, television, The City and the Pillar, Vidal Loco, Vietnam War, William F. Buckley Jr
The moment I mention the name William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal in conversation I’m automatically listed a snob. The reason for this is largely because few people probably give a shit about two intellectuals who, through eleven debates broadcasted on national television, permanently altered the political and entertainment venues in American society. The other reason is because both men were unashamed intellectuals who enjoyed the sounds of their own voice (Buckley more so, but that’s only because of his James William Bottomtooth III voice and yes that is a reference to Family Guy). These two men were polarizing figures in the political atmosphere of the late-sixties-early-seventies, though by today’s standards these men would probably strike the modern political activists as two librarians who stumbled on stage mumbling about the Monroe doctrine.
As for myself I became aware of Gore Vidal first, originally through Henry Rollins and then later by Christopher Hitchens. I watched an interview with Gore Vidal on The Henry Rollins Show, if anybody actually remembers that program as fondly as I do, but the man was only a name I was supposed to recognize and even after I asked about him there wasn’t much impulse to dig any deeper. I was thirteen years old and boobs were a thing or something, I don’t know it’s all a blur. My life went on and I continued my education until I reached the Two Year Slump, the rather nice description of a mental breakdown involving hallucinations, deep depression, and a drag queen named Melvis. It wasn’t all bad however for in that time I discovered Christopher Hitchens and through him I would discover Gore Vidal…that and this video from Family Guy helped:
Gore Vidal getting a hotdog shot into his mouth is esoteric comedy for the most part. In real life Gore Vidal was “gay,” he never gave a solid answer concerning his sexuality only “there are no homosexual people only homosexual acts,” though he did write The City and the Pillar, a novel that openly and unashamedly discussed issues of homosexuality, and remember this was published in 1948 when being gay could get you a life sentence in a mental institution with some small side effects of electroshock therapy to the genitals. Along with this novel is another entitled Myra Breckinridge a story of a gay man, or bisexual, who has sexual reassignment surgery and “changes back” into Myron when he meets a young woman he wants to be with. That description may be enough sour the man’s name in some reader’s mind however they would be missing out on the man’s vast collections of essays dealing with topics from Michel de Montaigne to Pornography to Henry Adams and also his historical novels like Lincoln and Burr which jumpstarted most of his appeal to American readers.
Gore Vidal was, it seemed, or at least for a long time, the Old Man in America. He was the voice of conscience, though a bit crass and always vain, but it was the voice devoid of bullshit. Vidal enjoyed his fluff, but never at the expense of truth. Though I will admit, and Christopher Hitchens notes this perfectly in his essay Vidal Loco, that near the end Vidal lost a great deal of intellectual teeth as his wit steadily devolved into seemingly bored attacks. Still despite this anti-climactic end, Gore Vidal embodies in my mind many of the outstanding traits of intellectualism, which leads me to the actual book review. I really need to work on just getting to the point, my wife suggests therapy but she talks to her cats so I’m not entirely sure I can trust her completely, not because she’s crazy but because I’m suspicious the cats may be trying to quietly get rid of me.
My interest in Vidal came about because of Christopher Hitchens. One day while I was preparing for my students I found a few moments to myself and I loaded up a televised debate with Hitchens and when it ended I noticed in the suggested videos section, the eternal temptation for those of us that live in the twenty-first century, and I clicked it. I was at that moment taken back in time, for that is the mot juste, to different world. I had never seen political pundits, at least not within the last ten to fifteen years, discuss events of the period with such eloquence or unashamed intellectual ethos. Gore Vidal was introduced as a representative of the Democratic party, while William F. Buckley Jr., a man I had never really heard of except in a few mentions when Vidal came up, as a representative of the Republican party and from that point I only remember their discussions of the Vietnam War, the Republican nomination of either Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, and the lack of credibility of the other. Unfortunately I had to cut the video short because my students had arrived, and while I was only about a year or two older than everyone there watching old black and white videos of intellectuals debate was lame and I was the cool SI leader.
I eventually sat down and absorbed these debates between Vidal and Buckley wishing I had a way of sitting down and really digging into their arguments which eventually lead me to the little tome.Robert
Buckley VS. Vidal: The Historic 1968 ABS News Debates is most likely a book you’ll buy for your grandfather, not the racist guy who complains about your interracial relationship, but the cool grandfather who owns a horse ranch, loves history, and smoked weed with you that one time when you were nineteen. That grandpa. Cool as balls ain’t he?
Sitting down with the book I recognized my bias, even more so when I look back my notes.* I read this book because of Vidal, because, much like my fan-boy crush on Hitchens, I envied Vidal for his intellectual ability, and it doesn’t hurt that I’m a Democrat. There’s some pathetic desire on my part, or illusion, or disillusion if you ask my wife, that if I read enough of these men I’ll become an intellectual superstar like him instead of the odd weirdo writer I currently am.
The book is broken up into eleven chapters plus an introduction by Robert Gordon, one of the two directors of a film entitled Best of Enemies which covers the debates as well as the public relationships of these two brilliant men. Gordon’s introduction provides the reader with some important background information when looking at the social significance at the time, and he also manages to capture the atmosphere of the actual debates:
If Buckley reviled Vidal’s pansexuality as a perversity that would dissolve the stability of God, country, and family, Vidal saw Buckley as a shill for corporate greed whose erudite rhetoric cloaked the mechanisms of exploitation and impoverishment. More than morally or ideologically offensive, each perceived his opponent as a beacon for danger, a determined imminent threat intent on taking down the nation. (14).
Gordon does a damn good job of providing the reader with this context as well as establishing some background information about how the debates were arranged, however near the end of the Introduction he begins to get a wee bit preachy:
We need public intellectuals to help us understand our times. Otherwise, we are subject to the Internet, where authority has been replaced by graphics—if it looks real it must be real, and where search engines create echo chambers of opinion. That is, we each may search Google, but the responses to “Obama” or “healthcare” or “same-sex marriage” will be different, can antithetical, based upon what the search engine has gleaned are the asker’s individual viewpoints. Lies and fictions are presented as truths by bloggers and websites […] allowing contradictory statements to co-exist when both can’t be true. (19-20).
Gordon I think gets a little too caught in the clouds, and I do believe he may be giving bloggers a little too much grief (though given some blogs I’ve seen and read it’s not THAT inaccurate), but his ideas do possess merit as I look back through these debates. The Public intellectual has seemed to disappear or else dwindle away into esoteric obscurity, and while there are one or two men that toil away writing essays for The New Yorker or Esquire, the mass public doesn’t seem interested in this kind of character anymore.
Buckley VS. Vidal is a transcription of the debates that took place between these two men. Just that. There is no long description of physical mannerisms, there are maybe three pictures in the entire book, the speaker’s last name is printed first followed by a colon and then everything that follows is actual dialogue spoken.
My contester argues, Well that sounds boring as hell. These men are debating the primaries of an election that took place in the sixties, what relevance does that have for people living in the twenty-first century?
My response is that it matters in first in terms of history, which I’ll explain here, and then second it matters for how it changed the public discourse concerning politics.
In the sixth debate on August 8, 1968 when discussing potential candidate Richard Nixon who was the favorite at the time Vidal begins:
Vidal: What you’re up to in a case when we’re in the midst of a war in which not much anybody likes, where do we stand? And if anybody votes for Nixon, they honestly don’t what he’s going to do and I say this having been stunned in ’64, like 24, or was it, 28 million Americans who voted for Lyndon Johnson? He was voted for because we thought that he was a peace candidate. And what Happened? Johnson did not confide in us, as it turned out, and became extremely aggressive war candidate, and we all regret voting for him.
Buckley: Well not all, but the majority of the Democrats polled last week are in favor of Johnson’s performance of his presidency.
Vidal: (Talking over Buckley) As a matter of fact, it isn’t (inaudible) 38 percent.
Buckley: (Talking over Vidal) Don’t, don’t, don’t…there’s an unfortunate tendency to confuse yourself with the majority of the American people. Unfortunate from both points of view. (103).
The book is arranged just as I’ve printed it here and so from a historical perspective this book is incredibly useful. It’s an unfortunate condition that describing dialogue, or else finding dialogue by the powerful and influential is a tedious and labor inducing prospect. Historians that may hope to write about this exchange between these two men, or else may wish to include excerpts for other works or lessons they may be working on now have a real resource to understand clearly what was said. Looking back at the videos the (inaudible) is sometimes a charitable inclusion because sometimes the tape quality is not what it should be, and YouTube has yet to respond to my suggestion for subtitles for poor deaf bastards like me, or to have the entire website interface be a cat dancing the macharena. Buckley VS Vidal is more than just a tool for a few intellectuals with elbow patches on their blazers however, for even common people who may enjoy the debates but would prefer to read them can enjoy the book. The transcription provides a new way of encountering these debates and understanding how liberals and conservatives were dividing their narrative of the country.
It’s also a great opportunity to observe how nasty these two men were to each other.
In one instance Gore Vidal asserts a previously made claim that Ronald Reagan campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas:
Buckley: (Talking over Vidal) Indeed, he did not.
Vidal: Indeed he did, and also when he campaigned for Rousselot the only issue in that campaign, who was a Republican, was that he has been a member of the John Birch Society, and the other two, contrary to what you said, were not Democratic candidates that he had campaigned for, they were Republican—just to get the record straight.
Buckley: You have not, excuse me, you have not illuminated the record. You have confounded it.
Vidal: I have absolutely not. You must not react to facts so emotionally. (88).
This passage is one of the more calmer passages, the most notorious example of course being the almost iconic tenth debate in which William F. Buckley made his remarks which, in some way, haunted him for the remainder of his life. During the Democratic primary in Chicago the police force began attacking protestors and reporters. Reading the following dialogue there reeks a hint of familiarity with my own times:
Buckley: They weren’t given a license to demonstrate…
Vidal: At that particular moment. However when they were in the parks on Monday night, when I observed them, I watched the police come in like this (makes gesture) from all directions, standing. [The demonstrators] were sitting there, singing folk songs. There were none of the obscenities which your ear alone seems to have picked up. They were absolutely well-behaved. Then, suddenly, the police began. You’d see one little stirring up in one corner. Then, you’d suddenly see a bunch of them come in with their nightclubs and, may I say, without their badges, which is illegal…
Howard K. Smith: Mr. Vidal, wasn’t it a provocative act to try to raise the Vietcong flag in the park, in the film we just saw? Wouldn’t that invite—raising a Nazi flag in World War II, would have had similar consequences?
Vidal: You must realize what some of the political issues here are…
Buckley: You are so naïve…
Vidal: There are many people in the United States [who] happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago that this is too bad…I assume the point of American democracy is you can express any point of view you want…
Vidal: Shut up a minute.
Buckley: No, I won’t. Some people are pro-Nazi and the answer is that they were well-treated by people who ostracized them, and I am for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care…
Vidal: As far as I am concerned, the only pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself, failing that, I would only say that we can’t have…
Howard K. Smith: Let’s stop calling names…
Buckley: (Buckley loses his compsure) Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.
Howard K. Smith: Gentlemen! Let’s not call names. (162-3).
Buckley’s line was considered the climax of these debates and it has often been argued that his losing his temper resulted in him “losing” the debates. He would eventually apologize publicly in an article published in Esquire which began another little squabble between him and Vidal, but that’s not important here. Buckley I feel has gotten a bad rap from this comment and while he deserves be called homophobic for making the slur, I do feel that he was pushed by Vidal into the comment. For those who have never heard of the phrase Godwin’s law, it’s the idea that when someone in the conversation, whether in person or in public or in the comment section of a Rachel Maddow clip, mentions or uses Nazi’s in an argument than the conversation has exhausted itself and all the parties have no hope of continuing any kind of rational argument. This is a phenomena many are probably familiar with. I’ve seen Trump compared to a Nazi at twenty times in the last month alone, and while I agree with the sentiment that he’s an ass clown with quasi-fascist statements, comparing him to Hitler just stops the argument dead. People stop listening because they’re either embarrassed that you’d make such an analogy, or else they’re offended that you’re comparing their candidate to a Nazi. I respect Gore Vidal but calling Buckley a Nazi was a little too far. Still, the comment broke Buckley’s ethos and effectively ended these debates.
However before I make my last point I do have to gush and argue in favor of Vidal’s position for in his closing remarks Howard Smith asked again about provocation and he responds:
Vidal: […] There are many acts which provoke. If you are going to have freedom of assembly and freedom of speech you must be able to say it. That is the whole point of this country. And once this is abrogated then I think we might as well stop these wars of freedom. What are we doing fighting in Vietnam if you cannot freely express yourself in the streets of Chicago? (166).
This last comment is why I gravitated towards Buckley Vs. Vidal, and the televised debates in the first place. In today’s media system it’s damn near impossible to find any kind of venue where two intellectuals are really allowed to offer up their opinion and experience as commentary for contemporary events because that isn’t sexy. What’s sexy is pundits calling each other queers and fascists, or bleeding hearts in front of the camera maximizing viewer reactions while producers guide the moderators to questions which only fuel the empty rhetoric while the important questions are left behind. My position however is unsexy as fucking fuck, not to mention predictable. There are too many people like me and unlike me who have given up hope of trying to find any kind of sane discourse and this idea is validated in Deborah Tannen’s For Argument’s Sake: Why Do We Feel Compelled to Fight About Everything? when she says:
Smashing heads does not open minds. In this as in so many things, results are also causes, looping back and entrapping us. The pervasiveness of warlike formats and language grows out of, but also gives rise to, an ethic of aggression. We come to value aggressive tactics for their own sake—for the sake of argument. Compromise becomes a dirty word, and we often feel guilty if we are conciliatory rather than confrontational—even if we achieve the result we are seeking. (75 Arguments pg. 47).
My point is not to suggest that Buckley and Vidal forever fucked television by giving us characters like Jerry Springer and Fox News, for there’s no doubt both of these men would have looked upon that kind of discourse as pathetic, and in fact dangerous for the republic. However their animosity on the screen resulted in viewer attention, something which the producers at ABC never dreamed would actually occur, and public television coverage was forever altered.
I’m not sure if I’ve accurately answered my contester’s question of relevance, all I can offer is the slightly bathetic response that the book allows readers to observe how the political discussions of the time were embodied in these two men and then, hopefully, lead the reader back to the original broadcasts so that they can see for themselves the real intellectual power these men possessed and demonstrated.
Buckley Vs. Vidal: The Historic 1968 ABC News Debates is a slim little tome that could be knocked out in an hour or two, but it has taken up permanent place in my library because it stands as the first written recording of a unique moment in American history. The reader may not always agree with the politics and positions of the speakers, but they may be simply amazed to discover there was a time where television allowed such a dialogue to actually take place, and if you just asked “what about on Charlie Rose?”…shut up I forgot about him.
Buckley Vs Vidal is available on Amazon.
I used the words “notes” rather generously. I despise marking up books, they’re little treasures to me, but alas eidetic memory went to others and so I can never remember quotes off the top of my head. Whenever I find a quote or passage I do enjoy I leave a little circle beside the paragraph/sentence in the margins and carry on my way. I thought I should be honest lest the reader think I annotate my books for fun, good god I’m not THAT kind of nerd.
Below is a link to an article for the film “Best of Enemies”
***Writer’s Final Note***
Below is a link to the climactic debate in which Buckley made his damning comment. This is the most cited for its spectacle, but perhaps the most powerful for the final summation by Vidal which, in a way, validates both men in the end.