War of the Words
by Brody Rossiter
2015 documentary picture, Best of Enemies, places one of America’s most confrontational and engrossing battles under a cinematic microscope, revealing the enduring hatred which rested at the core of a spectacular war of words.
Today’s political television debates revolve around the spectacle of an argument rather than the intrinsic worth of an informed discussion. News stations sensationalise the day’s headlines with talking heads more concerned with preaching to the masses and expanding their egos than uncovering the root of the issue. Minute long clips of verbal smackdowns pepper YouTube’s “Most Popular” playlist, while social media feeds feast upon comical exchanges and flurries of cringeworthy quarrels. While such outlandishness may well offer a cheap thrill, their actual worth is frustratingly limited and little is solved by their occurrence. It wasn’t always this way.
While broadcast media still sinks or swims on the basis of its viewing figures, back in sixties and seventies, ratings were for the most part earned with quality content rather than verbal slanging matches. A prime example of such high-brow entertainment was a series of debates conducted by ABC News in 1968 during their coverage of the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The flagging station gambled on corralling two of America’s most eloquent and outspoken individuals inside a studio, novelist Gore Vidal, and conservative author and commentator, William F. Buckley Jr.
Celebrated by their opposing movements and the political parties which they helped shape and define with their vast intellectual prowess, Vidal sped to the left of the political landscape, while Buckley veered to the right. When the two met on live national television, a strong disdain for one another’s socio-political ideals would gradually grow into a raw personal hatred that would trouble both men until their deaths. An animosity that mirrored the protests and rioting which followed the conventions they attended and violently swirled around the convention centres in which they debated.
Turning toward their friends, biographers, students and family, Best of Enemies not only investigates the how the relationship between Vidal and Buckley gradually spiralled out of control, it also explores an America plagued by vast inequality and a futile war in Vietnam – two issues which repeatedly provided material for the two great thinkers.
Acting as both a celebration of the dawn of political punditry – The Daily Show may well have never existed had it not been for ABC’s nightly overshadowing of the day’s campaigning – and a lament of its ratings driven devolvement, Best of Enemies is a fascinating, wonderfully sardonic and enlightening documentary. Edited with an impactful yet graceful touch – two traits often attributed to Vidal and Buckley – the verbal sparring on issues such as class division and foreign policy remains unnervingly relevant today, while also reminding us of the vast knowledge and articulacy that passed alongside two of modern history’s greatest minds.