You’re watching live television coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Outside of the convention hall, the Chicago police are clubbing demonstrators asking for peace. Inside the convention, on the ABC News set, you see this: “Now listen you queer, quit calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Who would ever say this on national television? William F. Buckley. Gore Vidal had just said, “The only crypto-Nazi I know is William F. Buckley.”
Vidal and Buckley were “debating.”
1968: Robert Kennedy assassinated; Martin Luther King assassinated; the Tet Offensive stuns America. The Summer of Love was last year.
In that time, long ago, well before hand-held devices, there were three national networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Networks mattered. CBS and NBC were in close competition for ratings, and advertising dollars, and ABC was way back. Its ratings were so bad that the joke was that if the Vietnam War were on ABC, it would be cancelled in 13 weeks.
The two contenders, CBS and NBC, planned “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the conventions. ABC executives, lacking funds, instead conceived an inspired marketing twist–debates between a “liberal” and a “conservative.” ABC called it “unconventional convention” coverage.
These debates and their meaning and fallout are the subject of Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s new documentary, Best of Enemies.
Neville and Gordon tell this story through bits and pieces of the debates and ABC news clips from the time (one choice example is marching bands in sunny Florida, “NIXON” banners draped across teenage girls’ bosoms), interspersed with interviews with ABC news executives (Richard Wald), media critics (Todd Gitlin, Frank Rich, and others), a retired talk show host (Dick Cavett), as well as a few personal friends and family members. Added to the mix are readings by Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow.
The “liberal” in the debates was Gore Vidal, the man whose 1968 novel, Myra Breckinridge, featured a transexual hero. Vidal boldly proclaimed that all human beings are bisexual whores. Vidal was a blue-blood, grandson of a senator, whose family owned land in Georgetown back when it was “George Town.” Gore Vidal, a jetsetter whose best-selling novels funded the purchase of a villa 2000 feet over the Mediterranean in Ravello, Italy, a splendid location nowhere near the USA.
On the conservative side stood, or sat, William F. Buckley, from inherited wealth, but not quite “old” money. Buckley, a graduate of Yale, spoke like a caricature of a blue blood. His first literary success was an attack on atheism and liberalism at Yale. Buckley was a devout Catholic who attended Latin Mass until his death. William F. Buckley, who founded (and financed) National Review, a journal intended to create a conservative movement that would remake the Republican party into a truly conservative party–and save America.
Save America from what? For starters, communists and Gore Vidal. When ABC approached Buckley, he said would appear with anyone except a communist or Gore Vidal. Shortly thereafter, ABC hired Vidal.
In the first of the ten debates, Buckley exudes confidence, but is woefully unprepared. He’s just back from a sailing trip to Cozumel. Buckley trots out his polysyllabic superficiality and deploys nouns such as “balderdash.” Vidal is ready. He hired a research assistant. He even tried out his bon-mots on the ABC News crew. Vidal is snarky and vain, but compelling. Most of all, Vidal refuses to play the game that Buckley is accustomed to liberals playing, where the liberal acts like Buckley is reasonable, just a little misguided.
Debate after debate, his formula failing, we see Buckley become progressively more exasperated and less able to suppress his loathing of Vidal. At the penultimate debate, the subject turns to the violence outside the convention hall. Buckley defends the Chicago police for their “admirable restraint” and compares the demonstrators to Nazis. Vidal replies that the only “crypto Nazi” he knows is Buckley, at which point Buckley loses control and unleashes the above oft-quoted quote.
The barely suppressed violence is startling. But it’s not isolated. Buckley jokes about socking people. He advocates greater force in Vietnam.
Did Buckley deserve the “crypto-Nazi” epithet? I don’t think so—but I do think Vidal was on to something.
The Anatomy of Fascism, by Robert O. Paxton, discusses the fascist belief in the redemptive power of violence. Buckley clearly feels that violence is a viable option. But Buckley is not a fascist in the classic way that Paxton defines it (a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites). However, Buckley is sympathetic, and knows it—hence his strong reaction when called on it.
In one of Best of Enemies’ interviews, Buckley’s brother Fergus call William F. a “conservative Christian libertarian revolutionary.” Buckley was libertarian about capitalism, certainly, and later about drugs, but not about sexuality, or about civil rights; he opposed desegregation on the grounds that the “Negro” was not ready for civilization.
Buckley was a reactionary. That’s a cliché perhaps, but it applies in this case. Reactionaries are motivated by fear, and seek to restore a past that never existed. They didn’t like the New Deal back in the 1930s, and were deeply threatened by the ’60s with its hippies, peace movement, long hair and communes. It’s hard to know which bothered Buckley more, progressive taxation or personal freedom, but it’s clear that he thought that the changing culture was a threat to his inherited wealth and position. His tribe, white Christian males, was under siege.
Buckley sought to build a potent political movement that could take over the Republican Party and lead us back to a time before liberalism and income taxes. And he was instrumental in building that movement and helping Ronald Reagan get elected President.
Now that movement has devolved into an inarticulate, monosyllabic extremism exemplified by the likes of Sarah Palin (and exploited by Donald Trump, who may or may not be an agent of the Clintons, but that’s another story)–a virulent, radical strain that terrifies the Republican establishment, who, after all, simply want to be free to make money. They want these folks to vote for them, but not to run the party. Oops, too late!
Vidal looked toward a world of personal freedom, and a world in which America was no longer an empire. Vidal was an observer and a recorder. He accepted the world even as he critiqued it. That’s what his historical novels were about. His was essentially a modern point of view, a point of view that Buckley feared and hated.
Ironically, the dreams and nightmares of both men have come to pass. The rich have never been richer. America is still an empire, more powerful than ever. But a large part of Vidal’s agenda, the tolerance of difference, in life styles, has also taken place. Investment banks celebrate diversity and have LGBT support groups. Corporate lawyers arrange pro bono asylum cases for the victims of homophobia in Third World countries.
The times have changed, and capitalism, in its almost infinite adaptability, now supports a wide variety of life style and personal choices–if you can pay for it. It’s not about traditional culture or the old tribe anymore. The new culture is Capitalism, with a capital “C,” and the new tribe is investors and the professionals who serve them. Best of Enemies is well worth your time if you’d like to know how this came to be.
Best of Enemies, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon; readings by Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow.