Thursday, January 28, 2016

Movie Review: Best of Enemies, a documentary directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, starring William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal (2015)

Poster for the 2015 documentary Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville.

Vidal and Buckley in the makeup chair, 1968.

William F. Buckley, threatening to do bodily harm to Gore Vidal, 1968.
Best of Enemies, an excellent 2015 documentary directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, takes a look at the relationship between authors William F. Buckley, Jr., and Gore Vidal. Specifically, the film examines the ten debates between Buckley and Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention, held in Miami Beach, and the Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago. Buckley and Vidal were hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the happenings at the conventions, and also to debate with each other on the various issues facing the country. 

Buckley and Vidal hated each other by the time they met on camera in 1968. In fact, the one person Buckley said he would not debate with was Gore Vidal. But ABC News hired Vidal anyway. Buckley and Vidal had previously sparred in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. That convention was the moment that Buckley’s right-wingers officially seized control of the Republican Party, as the nomination went to Senator Barry Goldwater rather than moderate Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller was heckled by the crowd with shouts of “lover!” as he attempted to address them. The taunt was a reference to his recent divorce and quick remarriage. Rockefeller told the audience, “It’s still a free country, ladies and gentlemen.” And while Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat in the fall, the seeds of a new Republican revolution were being planted. Just days before the 1964 Presidential election, actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised half hour speech called “A Time for Choosing,” in support of Goldwater. The speech was responsible for Reagan’s entry into politics. When prominent California Republicans saw the speech, they immediately thought that Reagan might be a good candidate for the 1966 California Governor’s race. Never mind that Reagan had been a Democrat until 1962. Buckley was a good friend of Reagan’s, and one of the last books Buckley wrote was The Reagan I Knew, an ode to their friendship. 

Best of Enemies does a great job of showing us Buckley and Vidal’s lives and careers, and putting them in the context of their times. They were two of the leading American public intellectuals in 1968, back in the day when we actually had public intellectuals. Buckley was really the only choice ABC had for a conservative pundit, as he was the only conservative who was nationally known and was also an excellent speaker.

Vidal was partially to blame for Buckley’s rise as a media star, as he had mentioned Buckley in 1962 on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, and Buckley was given time by Paar to answer or clarify statements that Vidal had made about him. When Buckley appeared on Jack Parr’s show, Paar was expecting to come face to face with an ignorant bigot. But Buckley proved to be a handsome, well-spoken intellectual. And then there was his voice. Mellifluous and rich, Buckley’s unique plummy accent was a mixture of his mother’s Southern drawl, the typical rich East Coast establishment accent, and a brief spell at a British boarding school. With his intense blue eyes and toothy grin, Buckley looked like a lost Kennedy cousin, perhaps from another line of the family that had turned conservative rather than liberal. Buckley’s obvious ease on camera led to him starting his own public affairs television show, Firing Line, in 1966. Firing Line ran for 33 years and more than 1,500 episodes. 

Gore Vidal also knew how to best present himself on camera. Vidal was also quite handsome, and like Buckley, he had a typical East Coast establishment accent. (It’s sometimes difficult to tell Buckley and Vidal’s voices apart. Also, no one on television in 2016 would be caught dead with such an “elitist” accent!) Vidal was a polished TV performer, and he prepared extensively for the debates with Buckley, hiring a researcher and rehearsing his seemingly ad-libbed insults to Buckley. Vidal was out for blood, and in the earlier debates in Miami Beach Buckley seems slightly flustered, having not correctly anticipated Vidal’s venom. It doesn’t take long before things get personal, with Vidal saying that Buckley was the inspiration behind his transsexual character Myra Breckinridge, which was one of the most scandalous novels of 1968. 

One of the best quotes during the debates was when Buckley said, “Freedom breeds inequality.” When prodded by Vidal, Buckley expounded further: “Unless you have freedom to be unequal, there is no such thing as freedom.” That struck me as a very true statement, but one that few people would actually own up to, since we like to think that freedom makes people more equal. You can have a society where everyone is equal, but that means you won’t have any freedom. And of course that’s never happened, because there’s never been a society where everyone is truly equal in every way.

The most infamous moment of the debates occurred in Chicago. Vidal and Buckley were discussing the anti-war protests and the extreme police response to them. Moderator Howard K. Smith said something about if the protestors raising a Viet Cong flag would be like raising a Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal then moved in for the kill, saying to Buckley, “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley responded, “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” You can tell from the clip how pissed off Buckley was, as he leaned over towards Vidal and it seemed for a moment that he might make good on his threat. Reid Buckley, Bill’s younger brother, said in the documentary, “I think Gore Vidal was fortunate that Bill didn’t punch him in the nose.” The moment quickly became notorious, as the usual decorum of a debate had devolved into vicious name-calling on both sides. 

Best of Enemies makes it clear that Buckley was troubled by the incident. I think Buckley was chagrined that he had resorted to the personal attack. As time went on, it became clear that the exchange with Vidal was the one time that Buckley ever lost his cool during a debate. In an effort to examine his feelings, Buckley wrote an essay for Esquire magazine, “On Experiencing Gore Vidal,” which was published in the August, 1969 issue. Vidal was allowed to respond, and his own essay, “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr.” was published in the September, 1969 issue. Both essays generated much controversy, and Buckley sued Vidal for libel, on the grounds that Vidal had implied that Buckley was gay. Vidal promptly countersued Buckley. The case ground through the courts for years, and eventually all the suits were dropped, with Esquire footing the bills for Buckley’s legal fees, and apologizing to Buckley in the pages of the magazine. Part of the settlement also stipulated that Vidal’s essay would not be republished in any future book. (It’s one of the rarest Vidal essays; it’s only been republished in Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire’s History of the Sixties.) Buckley took the opportunity to declare legal victory, which of course irked Vidal. 

In the years following their encounter, the two men took different approaches to the incident. Buckley rarely mentioned it again, whereas Vidal never missed an opportunity to bash Buckley. To me, that speaks to the difference in character between Buckley and Vidal. My own politics are more in line with Gore Vidal’s than William Buckley’s, but from everything I’ve read about both of them, Buckley was by far the nicer person and better man. Vidal was an amazingly talented writer who wrote sentences of incomparable beauty. His range of gifts was immense, as he authored screenplays, essays, plays, and novels. And yet, at the same time, he was a rather nasty person. If you look at Vidal’s life, it’s full of feuds and fights. As Vidal once wrote, “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.” That quote sums up Gore Vidal so well that it’s actually the British title of Jay Parini’s 2015 biography of Vidal. (The title in the United States is Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.) A quote that venomous would have never passed the lips of William F. Buckley, who was extremely generous and thoughtful to pretty much everyone he dealt with. Buckley could even strike up friendships with those on the opposite side of the aisle from him politically, like his famous friendship with the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith. One has only to read some of Buckley’s more personal non-fiction, in books like Cruising Speed, Overdrive, and Miles Gone By to get a sense of his zest for life, and the friendships and relationships that made his life worthwhile. Buckley had a generous spirit, and Gore Vidal did not. Buckley had hobbies and passions, like sailing, painting, and playing Bach concertos on the harpsichord. Gore Vidal’s only passion was for himself. 

Buckley was even generous towards Gore Vidal’s talents as a writer. When asked in 1978 if he thought there were any good liberal writers, Buckley said, “Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. And Gore Vidal-in his essays-has great style.” (Conversations with William F. Buckley, Jr., p.79) Buckley could have easily used the question as an opportunity to attack Vidal, but he didn’t. In an incident described in Best of Enemies, after Buckley taped the last episode of Firing Line in 1999, Ted Koppel interviewed Buckley and showed the clip of him calling Vidal a queer. Buckley said nothing. When there was a break in taping, he hurried over to Sam Tanenhaus and said, “I thought that tape had been destroyed.” Buckley was still unwilling to say anything bad about Vidal, but if that clip had been shown to Vidal in a similar setting, I feel quite confident that he would have used it to attack Buckley.

Gore Vidal proved again what a jerk he was after Buckley passed away in 2008. Vidal wrote an essay in which he savaged Buckley, writing, “RIP WFB-in hell.” Well, that’s subtle and clever. Gore Vidal never had a kind word for anyone. There was no forgiveness possible in his egocentric world. Christopher Buckley, WFB’s son, wrote of Vidal in 2012, after Vidal’s passing, “…one was left to wonder what it was within him that animated such hatred in him, at such a late stage?... Why was Vidal’s cauldron of bile still set, not on ‘simmer’ but on high in his final years? WFB had—to my knowledge—not once opened his mouth or uncapped his pen against his old adversary since the early 1970’s. I was present, on a number of occasions when WFB was accosted by an interviewer or lunch guest, asking for comment about Vidal. Without exception, he demurred—and demurral was emphatically not WFB’s default position.” 

One of the saddest moments in Best of Enemies is a clip of William Buckley being interviewed by Charlie Rose in March, 2006, less than two years before Buckley’s death.

Rose: “Do you wish you were 20?”
WFB: “No, absolutely not. If I had a pill which would reduce my age by 25 years, I wouldn’t take it.”
Rose: “Why not?”
WFB: “Because I’m tired of life.”
Rose: “Are you really?”
WFB: “Yeah. I really am. I’m utterly prepared to stop living on. There are no enticements to me that justify the weariness, the repetition.” 

Even as Buckley says this, his eyes still sparkle. The indefatigable William F. Buckley still managed to write four more books in the less than two years he had left on Earth. 

Best of Enemies is a superb documentary, and it is essential viewing for fans of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. My vote for the most entertaining person in the documentary goes to Reid Buckley, Bill’s younger brother, who looks and sounds just like Bill. It’s clear that Reid had the same joie de vivre that his older brother did. 

One final quote on the whole matter, which the directors used at the very end of the movie, and seems an apt summing up: “There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable, and that which is highly illuminating.”-William F. Buckley.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Great review, will have to watch soon.