These days, the aristocrat, as stock character in the popular imagination, tends to be a Brit: effete and affected, accented, superior, and insufferable. Caricature-loving satirists (a redundancy, I know) like the late Jon Stewart (who’s still alive, sure, but you know what I mean), send up Brits as monocle-wearing, class-bound, fox-trotting snobs about as reliably as Italians get the Goodfellas treatment. The American conservative, by contrast, both in its own imagination and that of its putative liberal adversary (albeit with differences of emphasis and attitude), is understood as a populist, a “real American” of the heartland-inhabiting, plain talk-preferring, elite-allergic sort.
To which Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville‘s new documentary, Best of Enemies, offers a corrective, reminding us that, short-term memories be damned (“sic transit journalism, pal,” as per The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson), things were not ever thus. In the 1960s, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal occupied ideological corners as polarized as those inhabited today by Mr. Stewart and Fox News, but in both eras our respective opposites shared a common attribute. For today’s political pugilists, the entertaining, and thereby maintaining, of a devoted television audience towers above all other considerations. Buckley and Vidal’s commonality was more fundamental, or at least more personal: the two were like mirror images of one another, each descended and refracted from America’s homegrown aristocracy, each exquisitely tailored, impeccably (if eccentrically, in Vidal’s case) educated, imposingly articulate, and possessed of a plummy, private-school enunciation that harkened back to FDR, that greatest and arguably last of the American aristocrats to attain serious national power.
FDR, of course, in the standard reckoning of these things, was no conservative. Conservatives despised him for crimes analogous to those of which Obama stands accused by Fox-fans and dittoheads: leading a fifth column with the aim of undermining American sovereignty and installing a puppet regime in thrall to a foreign power, then Soviet, now Koranic; replacing private industry with a cradle-to-grave nanny state; and so on. But FDR was a conservative in the same way that Gore Vidal was: they both represented, not unsentimentally, America’s fading, old money, Old World-style gentility, with its at least half-phony aura of graciousness, grandeur, and Tradition. Gore Vidal even semi-expatriated, spending several months each year at his isolated, majestic villa in Ravello, Italy, whose balconies offered, as we hear him boast in Best of Enemies, an unparalleled perch from which to watch the decline of the West.
Vidal, in fact, embodied the most refined expression of a tendency classified by Norman Mailer, his more thuggish but no less self-ensorcelled contemporary, as “left conservatism,” the internal dissonance of which contributed to Vidal’s charisma as a writer and public intellectual but hobbled his attempts to seek public office. The man not only conspicuously lacked a “common touch” — something similar was true of FDR, after all — he seemed to conspicuously disdain any attempt to fake it, as well. Buckley’s patrician qualities, on the other hand, endeared him to a segment of conservative Americans still comfortable with, even nostalgic for, his brand of elitist noblesse oblige, a segment large enough to gain him some traction and lots of attention during his own unsuccessful runs for office in the Sixties.
By 1968, Vidal was enjoying enormous success as a satirical novelist, while Buckley, Jr., thanks more to his long-running television program, Firing Line than to his editorship of the small but influential magazine National Review, was the most prominent conservative intellectual (or polemicist, if you prefer) in the country. ABC, the poorest and least-watched of the three TV networks, with a news division that lacked both celebrity and a discernible sense of mission, looked at that summer’s looming national political conventions as opportunities to set itself apart while also stretching its budget. It dubbed its approach, which would forgo the other networks’ gavel-to-gavel coverage to include interludes of commentary provided by ostensible experts, the “unconventional convention,” and the heart of the thing would be a regularly scheduled clash between Right and Left in the respective persons of Buckley and Vidal. Ten nights, ten debates, who knows? There might be some fireworks. There were, and the ratings exploded right along with them.
Best of Enemies is at its best when it focuses on the strange, strained relationship between these two men as it progressed, notoriously, over the course of the “debates” — more like cat fights, really, spiced up with syntactic sophistication and ornamented by an impressive spectrum of smirks — from mutually haughty disdain to artless slurs and threats of violence. It’s equally strong on the aftermath, on the ways in which the affair haunted (and hounded) both participants for the rest of their lives. For me, at least, Buckley emerges as the more sympathetic personality, his life-long devotion to odious causes and careers be damned. (Watch him swimming with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and try not to sock yourself in the goddamn face.) Vidal, by comparison, betrayed a rather embrittled and ungenerous spirit as he aged.
Nevertheless, both bizarro-twins engage and fascinate throughout the film, which is never unriveting. The editing is smart, fast, colorful, and a joy to listen to, garlanded as it is with snippets of the era’s gloriously dated interstitial library music. 1968’s well-known, perennially compelling cultural and political contours are briskly sketched via judicious but liberal selections from ABC’s own stock of vivid video.
In almost closing, it has to be said that Gordon and Neville’s bit-playing hired hands (talking heads, all) are as delightful as the film’s principles. My personal favorites, both of whom joined our debaters in the next world not long after these interviews were conducted, are Reid Buckley, Bill’s baby brother, and Christopher Hitchens, who, of course, actually was a Brit, and whose reputation for scathing wit and intimidating erudition rivaled that of his elder blowhards, who didn’t give an inch. (“Hitchens identified himself for many years as the heir to me . . . unfortunately, for him, I didn’t die,” said Vidal, shortly before he did.)
As for Reid Buckley, well, he looks and sounds like a less Olympian, less mannered, less frankly weird version of his brother, none of which stops him from confessing that, to him, everything about Gore Vidal contained a “residue of . . . nausea.” Cue the all-too-familiar, sparkling Buckley smile, ingratiating and infuriating as ever. “I hope I didn’t say anything nasty about him.”
Best of Enemies is framed by an argument which, while provocative, is a little thin and overstated. It posits that these ten brief debates between Buckley and Vidal inaugurated a national shift — you might even call it a fall — from good old-fashioned news reporting to round-the-clock partisan punditry, a shift that culminated in the fragmented, debased media landscape we know and loathe today. In this, the film evinces, for better or worse, its own brand of conservatism, its own longing for an irretrievable golden age in which the world made some kind of sense, even if only for us real Americans.
Now playing in various theaters across the land, not the least of ’em being the Coolidge and the Kendall.