At first glance, Best of Enemies sounds boring: two privileged white guys debate politics in 1968. Seriously, that’s the film.
If the two guys were that year’s major party presidential candidates, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, perhaps the film would have more immediate appeal. But the two guys are William F. Buckley, Jr., and Gore Vidal, figures unfamiliar to most citizens under 35.
Yet those who dismiss Best of Enemies before seeing it are overlooking one of the year’s most engaging historical documentaries. The film’s subjects, Buckley and Vidal, were two of the wittiest, and thereby most entertaining, public figures in American history. Furthermore, as the film presents them, Buckley and Vidal were the original pundits, and their spirited exchanges initiated the transformation of television news and political commentary into the spectacle it is today.
In 1968, as the presidential race progressed, ABC’s ratings were dismally behind CBS and NBC. At the time, viewers expected campaign coverage to come from stoic news anchors. Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, and ABC executives knew they couldn’t create another Cronkite. Instead, they decided to take a gamble. They would subvert television news conventions by inviting two commentators from sharply opposing positions to eschew the journalist’s pretense of passive objectivity and engage each other as palpable opponents.
To make the contest even more spectacular, ABC wanted two figures who didn’t like each other. Buckley and Vidal were perfect.
Buckley was the editor of the conservative magazine National Review and the host of the conservative television show Firing Line. Vidal was a prolific novelist and essayist who was unabashedly left-leaning and advocated for sexual revolution. As two of the sharpest minds of their day, Buckley and Vidal were masters at intellectual sparring and could have delivered some of the most sophisticated debates in our country’s history.
Unfortunately, however, their confrontations, though highly entertaining, devolved into one-upmanship, and their disdain for each other became more painfully apparent with each debate. After their ninth debate, when they traded their most infamous insults, ABC moderator Howard K. Smith characterized their exchange as having “a little more heat and a little less light” than their previous debates.
Yet ABC’s ratings soared, and other networks mimicked the strategy. Eventually, 24-hour news channels emerged to inundate us with sensationalism and triviality. Antagonistic talking heads like Bill O’Reilly, on the right, and Al Sharpton, on the left, have replaced the public intellectual, providing us with entertainment in the guise of news. Of course, for those of us dismayed by the spectacle the news has become, the most penetrating counterforce, ironically, has been Jon Stewart’s style of news in the guise of entertainment. In fact, as I watched Best of Enemies, I kept wishing someone would have admonished Buckley and Vidal the way Stewart admonished Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson on Crossfire, when he told them, “Stop hurting America.”
Nonetheless, Best of Enemies entertains by presenting Buckley and Vidal at their most colorful, and it informs by providing the cultural context of their debates. For anyone interested in the news media and the history of public discourse in America, Best of Enemies is essential viewing.
The documentary Best of Enemies opens at the Carolina Theater today.