I was in the army during the presidential conventions of 1968, just a couple of months removed from heading to Vietnam. But I recall watching the debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. If you never got to see them, you might want to check out "Best of Enemies," the documentary film about those debates that opens today at the Magic Lantern.
My review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, follows:
Anyone who is old enough to remember the presidential conventions of 1968 likely remembers just how turbulent that year truly was. People took to the streets to protest everything from Civil Rights to the Vietnam War, and nearly 17,000 U.S. troops would die in Vietnam – making 1968 the war’s deadliest year. America was shaken by a series of assassinations, most recently that of Bobby Kennedy, and President Lyndon Johnson – realizing that he could not win a second elected term – had declared he would not run.
Everything, in short, was changing. And as the British writer Arnold Bennett once wrote, “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.”
One of the changes involved television news coverage. In those days, TV viewers could tune into three networks and, if they were lucky, maybe a publicly run station. Everything else was snow. Of those networks, NBC and CBS attracted the most viewers, with ABC continually attempting to find inventive ways to catch up.
During the 1968 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions, both of which were held in August, ABC News decided to break with tradition and find a different way to cover the events. Until then, all three networks had opted for gavel-to-gavel coverage. But ABC – which, like its competitors, was filming the conventions in color for the first time – decided to offer 90-minute nightly reports that included political commentary – debates, if you will – from two of that era’s most recognizable intellectuals: the conservative writer and TV host William F. Buckley and the acerbic, liberal essayist and novelist Gore Vidal.
And as co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville make clear in their documentary “Best of Enemies,” which opens today at the Magic Lantern, the pairing of Buckley and Vidal was almost as fiery as the violence that hit the streets during the Democratic convention in Chicago. Both were from the same social class, both attended Eastern prep schools, both were patrician in manner (if not necessarily, referring to Vidal, in manners), and both were witheringly intelligent, quick-witted and well-prepared to defend their polar-opposite points of view.
Oh, and personally, they didn’t really much care for each other.
To tell the story of the debates, Gordon and Neville – the latter of whom won an Oscar for the 2013 documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom” – amassed archival TV footage and employed both a range of experts (including the late Christopher Hitchens) to provide subtext and the actors Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow to give voice to comments made by the debate principals, both of whom are now dead.
The result is a fascinating look at both the men – similar in so many ways while being so different in as many others – and at the age in which they lived and worked. Gordon and Neville may over-reach a bit in attempting to make a larger statement about the lingering effects of the Buckley-Vidal debates. But not by much.
Just look at what political commentary has devolved to in this era of social-media trolling and ask yourself: Are we any better off?