“Best of Enemies”: New documentary revisits Buckley vs. Vidal

The 1968 presidential campaign was one of the most tumultuous in American history. Issues such as Vietnam, civil rights, and changing attitudes about what freedom actually meant all collided during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Choices in media were not as varied as nowadays. The vast majority of Americans depended increasingly on the three major television networks for coverage, and ABC News found itself at the bottom of the ratings.

Enter William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. The network decided to combine footage of convention proceedings with a series of live televised debates involving these two intellectual thinkers who represented extreme opposite views of American society and where it was headed.

Best of Enemies is extremely relevant as a window into current events. It serves as more than simply a time capsule. Co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville have created a documentary that does not seem forced or padded. The film offers a wellpaced mix of archival television footage and new commentaries.

Media historians will savor footage of the actual debates. Ample time is given to the original broadcasts, a series of ten debates split between the Republican National Convention in Miami and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Best of Enemies firmly deals with the subject matter of the broadcasts and the political reality of 1968. Equally important, it encourages viewers to ponder current political media. The original debates dealt not just with Vietnam and racial protests of the era. The rightwing Buckley and leftist Vidal were standing on their respective philosophical platforms, and much of America was tuning in. This was the groundwork for the confrontational television we commonly see today.

William F. Buckley, Jr. was a conservative writer and commentator who rose to fame as founder of National Reviewmagazine. He is often considered the father of the modern conservative movement. His popularity may be attributed to the desire of the right wing to present a favored spokesman to confront progressive movements in the United States.

In contrast, Gore Vidal was an accomplished novelist and one of America’s great liberal thinkers. Vidal was on the cutting edge of progressive ideas and his writing reflected this. His 1948 novel “The City and the Pillar” dealt with homosexuality in a way that respected the characters without sensationalism. Thus we had the ingredients for a powerful discourse on national television, and as Vidal told Buckley himself, viewers got their money’s worth.

Many of the confrontational issues of that era carry on today. News footage of the racial protests during the RNC in Miami seems indistinguishable from recent confrontations on the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson. The predominantly white, middle-class Republicans inside the convention preached law and order while the disenfranchised and ethnic minorities were on the streets protesting the indifference of politicians and their agendas. Gore Vidal took the upper hand by questioning the relevance of a political party that is entirely based on greed. This set the stage and put Buckley on the defensive for much of the debates.

Viewers are probably well aware of the infamous 1968 DNC scenario. Thousands of anti-war protestors gathered in Chicago during the convention where a candidate to succeed Lyndon B. Johnson would be chosen – LBJ had declined to run again – culminating in a violent confrontation with police in Grant Park. These events were heatedly debated on national television by Buckley and Vidal. As Buckley defended the containment of demonstrators, Vidal questioned whether America should be engaged in wars overseas when our own citizens’ freedoms were being violated in the streets of our cities.

In reality, at that time both political parties were faltering. Chicago was led by Democrats, and Mayor Richard J. Daley defended the violent police actions against the protesters. The confrontation in the streets, and between Buckley and Vidal, was in essence cultural and ideological, overshadowing the political parties themselves.

The film features informed narration by Dick Cavett, Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and others. Colorful commentary is also provided by Buckley’s brother Reid Buckley, who reveals his reactions on camera as he views the infamous threat that his brother made against Vidal during the live debate. The aftermath of those heated words lived on to haunt both William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal until their deaths.

Best of Enemies succeeds without being partisan or overbearing. Its subject speaks for itself, allowing filmgoers to make their own case with the material at hand.


Anthony Mangos
Anthony Mangos

Anthony Mangos served with the United States Postal Service and is a lifelong union member. As a freelance writer he contributes regularly to various film and literary publications. He resides in Johnstown, Pa., but considers the world as his neighborhood.