In 1968 ABC was clearly the third rated American network. They had little money and faced with covering both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in Miami and Chicago respectively. While NBC and CBS were planning elaborate gavel to gavel coverage ABC could only afford a short prime time show each night and needed a hook to get some viewers. They decided to get one voice from the right and another from the left. Both educated, opinionated and strong orators of the English language to debar the issues of the conventions. 5 shows in Miami followed by 5 in Chicago. The obvious choice from the left was William F. Buckley. Buckley was conservative, right wing, Libertarian and Christian. He was editor of the national review. Buckley accepted the invitation stating that he would debate annoy from the left expect for one person who he called the devil Gore Vidal so that's who ABC chose to oppose him.
If Buckley was the poster boy for Conservatism, Vidal was his foil; an author wrote books featuring homosexuals as normal members in society in the 50's. He wrote the screenplay for Ben Hur. His current project at the time Myra Breckenridge he story of a man playing a woman playing a man was the smash hit. ABC news director Howard K. Smith had his two commentators for the debate.
The debates at the Republican convention in Miami established each man's position. Vidal took shots at the National Review while Buckley fired back at Myra Breckenridge a book he had not yet read. Vidal spoke to the rights of the poor, the adversaries debated the merits of the Vietnam war and the merits of Buckley's interview show Firing Line on PBS when he said among other controversial things to Mohammad Ali that the Muslim religion is a disease of the mind. Buckley tried to pin down Vidal's sexual preferences but his combatant responded that he shed sexuality labels. Vidal's crushing final blow: the Republicans were Right Wing, Greedy, Nazi Fascists who hid all of their ant-social activities behind the catch phrase of Law and Order.
A week later he scene shifted to the Democrats in Chicago that turned into a police state for the convention. The state of the city and the subsequent riots became a major topic of the debates. Vidal went out into the streets with actor Paul Newman and author Arthur Miller reporting on the state of the city in the next nights debate. Buckley's opening salvo was that he had read Myra Breckenridge and didn't like it. Vidal spoke of the city being like a soviet regime littered with agent provocateurs in the crowd. Buckley responded that he was surprised at how much restraint the police showed. Then on the topic of Vietnam called opponents of the war Nazi appeasers. Vidal volleyed back calling Buckley a crypto Nazi at which point Buckley completely lost his cool on air. He called Vidal a Queer told him to quit calling him a crypto-Nazi or he'd sock Vidal in the goddamm face and he'll stay plastered. The minute the words left his mouth he knew he has lost the debates plus he saw the satisfied smile on Vidal's face at the end of the outburst.
Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville do a masterful job of revealing the back story of both men. Mixing in their academic records, family backgrounds, likes and haunts and future conflicts after the debates ended. ABC won big in the ratings and these debates were the start of the left/right formula that is still used today as commentators scream at each other on Fox News and other programs. The documentary is an enthralling political commentary and a film and piece of history that I highly recommend.
**** Out of Four
Best of Enemies | Robert Gordon / Morgan Neville | U.S.A. | 2015 | 87 Minutes.
Tags: 1968 National Conventions, ABC News, Left vs Right, Conservative, Liberal, National Review, Myra Breckenridge.