Home' South Florida Gay News : SFGN 090215 Contents 50 • 9.2.2015
Viewers flipping channels on television
during the presidential election cycle are
likely to catch colorful, outspoken pundits
discussing civil rights, income equality
and culture wars—except we’re not talking
about 2015, but 47 years ago.
A documentary opening this week in
South Florida proves that old adage in
politics, the more things change, the more
they stay the same.
“Best of Enemies” offers a fascinating
analysis of the events and lasting effects of 10
live debates between conservative William F.
Buckley, Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal, broadcast
on ABC during the 1968 Republican and
Democratic presidential conventions.
The move was gutsy for the network,
which was stuck in third place or even
“fourth, but there were only three networks,”
as a retired executive pointed out on camera,
later joking, “The way to end to the Vietnam
War would be to put it on ABC and it would
be over in 13 weeks.”
Equally bold was the casting of two
“public intellectuals.” Buckley was editor of
the “National Review,” considered the father
of the modern conservative movement, and
Vidal, a frustrated politician, celebrated
author and screenwriter, and coincidentally,
in-law of former first lady Jackie Kennedy
Vidal was a particularly daring—if
not perfectly suited choice—a gay bon
vivant who had recently authored “Myra
Breckenridge,” a scathing satirical novel
about the evils of big business and featuring
a transsexual protagonist.
The only point the two could agree,
besides their antipathy for each other,
was that the country was splitting at the
seams. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther
King, Jr. had been assassinated and cities
were burning. The country was mired in an
increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. The
sexual revolution was marching forward and
women were demanding lives outside of the
The Republicans chose Miami Beach as the
location to anoint their candidate, Richard
Nixon, the first time their convention had
been held below the Mason Dixon Line.
As delegates politicked amid palm trees
and sandy beaches, Vidal launched the
first attack, a familiar line in 2015. “Can
a political party based almost entirely on
greed nominate a candidate that a majority
He accused Republicans of attacking the
poor and then shedding crocodile tears
for their situation. Buckley blustered back,
sending ratings through the roof.
The verbal sparring continued in Chicago
weeks later when Democrats met to choose
a leader in the vacuum left by RFK’s death.
Like modern days, the convention featured
celebrities including actor Paul Newman
and playwright Arthur Miller.
Mayor Richard Daley had the city locked
down as violence flared, leading to one of
the most powerful moments in the film:
Aretha Franklin flubbing the words to the
National Anthem amid scenes of riot police
beating back protesters.
In the studio, tension also built, leading
to Buckley’s infamous meltdown. After
Vidal accused him of being a “crypto Nazi,”
Buckley lashed out, calling Vidal a “queer”
and threatening physical violence.
Again, in a brilliant choice from
filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert
Gordon, the speechless expressions of the
many experts featured in the film, punctuate
the gravity of the vicious (for the time) ad
hominem attack, launched in front of 10
Afterwards, Buckley admitted his pulse
was racing, while Vidal quipped, “I guess we
gave them their money’s worth.”
The episode was one from which both
men would be scarred. Buckley attempted
to justify his anger in a 12,000 word essay
in “Esquire” magazine, answered by Vidal’s
own piece. Lawsuits would follow. In his
final episode of “Firing Line” more than 30
years later, Buckley was left speechless when
the episode was recalled, while Vidal would
watch recordings of the debates with his
biographer a la Norma Desmond in “Sunset
As the final credits roll, the many pundits
and experts noted the lasting effects of
the debates on modern political news
coverage. In 1968, television was still a
“public square” where Americans gathered
to watch the events of the day. No network
again aired gavel-to-gavel coverage of a
nominating convention, turning to their
own commentators. And the advent of cable
and the Internet allows us to group into like-
minded communities of concern, tuning out
The issues remain the same, but will never
be argued by “public intellectuals” in the
same way again.
coMpeLLing docuMenTaRy pRoves
LiTTLe has changed in poLiTics
“Best of Enemies,” a
in South Florida this
the 1968 televised
William F. Buckley, Jr.,
left, and Gore Vidal.
Credit: Magnolia Pictures.
“Best of Enemies” opens Sept.
4 at Coral Gables Art Cinema,
260 Aragon Ave. The film opens
Sept. 11 at Stonzek Theater at
Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake
Ave. For more information, go to
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