This piece was originally published for The Round website back in 2018.
By Will Barber Taylor
Netflix have recently put the 2015 documentary Best of Enemies onto their platform about the debate between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jnr during the 1968 Presidential election. The film is a stunning and fascinating look at a watershed moment in American politics.
Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jnr were two of Americas most interesting and engaging commentators. They also loathed one another with a passion not simply because of their contrasting personalities but because of what they represented. Buckley, founder of The National Review, was the intellectual godfather of Reaganism and provided Richard Nixon with the platform to win the 1968 Presidential Election. Vidal, in contrast was the darling of American liberalism known for his vivid novels and ruthless one liners. On their own, Vidal and Buckley were fascinating and controversial figures. This is why ABC, falling behind its rival networks and unable to film all of the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions asked Buckley and Vidal to take part in eleven debates on the issues raised at each one. The debates would change television in America and reshape how we perceived politics.
Buckley said, when approached for the debates, that he would debate anyone other than Gore Vidal. To Buckley, Vidal was the embodiment of liberalism run amuck. He was the devil incarnate, who if not defeated, would take America to the brink of moral and social decay. Vidal thought the same of Buckley – that he was a dangerous ideologue whose influence on Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would cause America to go to hell and result in the imbedding of right wing conservatism into American society.
This meant that they were the perfect people to comment on the 1968 election because it saw the Buckley influenced Nixon face up against a Democratic party reeling from the loss of its two most charismatic leaders, President John F Kennedy and his brother Senator Robert F Kennedy. It also helped that both Buckley and Vidal understood politics, not simply from a philosophical point of view but a practical point of view.
Both were failed politicians with connections to the establishment of their party – Vidal was, in fact, Jackie Kennedy’s step brother and had hoped that he may one day succeed Kennedy to the Presidency; his ambitions were halted by his failure to be elected as the member of Congress for 29th Congressional District of New York and his mocking of Robert Kennedy, a fact that caused both the President and First Lady to stop speaking to him. Buckley had tried to become Mayor of New York and failed to gain the Republican nomination. This understanding and bitter opposition turned the debates into an intellectual cage fight as the two ragging personalities tried to best one another and prove that their way was the right way.
The high ratings that the debates received ensured that rather than broadcasting the whole conventions, TV stations could save money and boost ratings by filming parts of them and using pundits to debate the rest. This changed the very way we perceived politics – instead of it being beamed directly to our television screens, we would see politics through the lens of the pundit. Our ideas would be funnelled through their beliefs and we would consume it as fact. This is why the Buckley/Vidal debates were important in changing American and world politics – they redefined the way we thought and understood politics.