'Best of Enemies' is a documentary about the legendary series of nationally televised debates in 1968 between two great public intellectuals, the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Intended as commentary on the issues of their day, these vitriolic and explosive encounters came to define the modern era of public discourse in the media, marking the big bang moment of our contemporary media landscape when spectacle trumped content and argument replaced substance. 'Best of Enemies' delves into the entangled biographies of these two great thinkers and luxuriates in the language and the theater of their debates, begging the question, 'What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today?'
The legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr. is not necessarily his 'National Review'; it isn't his devotion to the Buckley pere's hatred of FDR's New Deal, an act deemed a patrician's treachery to his class; it is the implosion of what his brother Reid concretes him as a revolutionary who ushered in the conservative revolution that we see in the impossible array of 17 candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination for the American presidency and the rise of Donald Trump. But, in 'Best of Enemies' trans-political make over is a glint in Buckley's eye as he faced the talented Gore Vidal as they 'commented' on the 1968 Republican convention in Miami and then the Democratic convention in Daley's Chicago. Who has read Buckley's apologia pro sua vita as spy for the FBI 'God and Man at Yale' today? Brilliant, effete, an amateur of the harpsicord,a seasoned sailor, he thought of himself the American heir to the little read GK Chesterton, in his affected speech. He could demolish in high disdain the arguments of his guests on 'Firing Line', guests like Norman Mailer, Allan Ginsberg and the like. Buckley was a man of the right--God, Country, Law and Order, who fought those critics of his values not necessarily in the name of freedom and humanity but in defense of older medieval values by attacking contemporary secular culture. And the embodiment of his distaste was the writer, playwright and commentator on things cultural and political Gore Vidal. ABC pitted these two 'aristocrats' of polished English as a wedge in the wall-to-wall coverage of the conventions by rivals CBS and NBC, at a time nightly television news was accepted more or less straight by the American people. From the get go, it was obvious that these two mavens of the Verb mutually loathed one another. Buckley shucking and sliding verbally, eyes popping, a supercilious grin on his lip as he flung mud at Vidal, not so much on what he said about the convention but for what he stood for. Remember, Gore Vidal had broken taboos for his 'Myra Breckenridge', about a transgendered man, light years ahead of the much admired Caitlin Jenner, a Republican. To Buckley, the writer of note was an enemy of God and patrician values and yes even to an elite education which Gore Vidal didn't pursue--he was a drop out who joined the Army during WW2, serving in Alaska where he wrote his much praised 'Williwaw'. Vidal was a 'revolutionary' in his own way; he published 'The City and the Pillar', which had a homosexual theme, that so exasperated the Old Grey Lady, the New York Times, which boycotted reviewing any of his books till decades later when they couldn't ignore his obvious talent. And in Gore, Buckley met more than his equal, so much so that until his death he wouldn't pronounce the V word. Buckley and Vidal were bellwethers; each had a finger on the rage and discontent of the times. And according to the talking heads, their 10 debates radically changed political discourse that now plagues our own day. 'Best of Enemies' is more than nostalgia, it is a palimpsest for the soul of the American soul. Buckley was an admirer of authoritarianism that Vidal was not. And it was to Vidal's credit that he pierced the supercilious armor of Buckley that, despite the adulation of his peers, rendered a life of hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the anti-Semites and racists, made him lose his 'cool' and restful nights of sleep. Even though he called Vidal a 'queer' (which wasn't a slur a half-century ago), Vidal suspected that he was a closet case, going as far as saying he was an incarnation of Myron Breckenridge. (For those who want to read about the conventions in Miami and bloody Chicago,Norman Mailer's 'Miami and the Siege of Chicago' is not a bad place to begin.
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