Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dueling intellects --- and venom, too

I'm not sure that 1968 was a pivotal year in the history of television news, but it's a point worth considering. In that politically tumultuous moment, ABC -- lagging behind its competitors (NBC and CBS) -- decided to boost viewership of both the Democratic and Republican conventions by adding heated commentary to the mix. To that end, ABC hired adversaries William F. Buckley (patrician conservative) and Gore Vidal (patrician liberal) to "debate" one another. What may have been conceived as a sideshow becomes the main event in Best of Enemies, a documentary from directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. Gordon and Neville do an able job of putting the 10 Buckley/Vidal debates into the context of media history. But it's the debates that form the heart of the movie, two intellectual titans exchanging venomous barbs. In a time when commentary (or what passes for it) seems to have eclipsed reporting -- at least on the 24-hour cable television outlets -- the debates may seem less revolutionary than they did when they first occurred. Both Buckley and Gore were intellectual heavyweights, but they also embodied a clash between two men who despised each other to the very core of their beings. Within an eye blink, animosity became entertainment. The great moment in the debate arrived when Vidal called Buckley a crypto-fascist. Buckley responded by calling Vida a queer, and threatening to punch him in the face. The moment was scored as a victory for Vidal because the ultra-rational Buckley lost his cool. Buckley evidently was bothered by his loss of composure, as well. Of course, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago produced a whole other story as police brutally attempted to disperse protestors. I'm not sure the Buckley/Vidal debates are quite as important as the filmmakers make them out to be, but even taken as a footnote to history, the glowering rivalry between these men still fascinates -- and, heaven help us, entertains.

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