Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Best of Enemies (Media Ranch, Motto Pictures, Tremolo Productions, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was the season opener of PBS’s long-running Independent Lens series, Best of Enemies, a 2015 documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville on one of the most legendary events in the history of television, the on-air debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal put on by ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic political conventions. The context was that ABC was chronically the lowest-rated of the three big networks, and had been ever since it was spun off from NBC as a result of antitrust litigation in the early 1940’s. Gordon and Neville even show clips of ABC’s entertainment shows of the period, including Land of the Giants and The Flying Nun, to illustrate that they were the third network, and they quote then-NBC News president Richard Wald as saying, “It would’ve been fourth, but there were only three.” Wald also tells the famous joke of the time, “You want to know how to end the Viet Nam war? Put it on ABC and it’ll be canceled in 13 weeks.” While the other networks, NBC and CBS, were pursuing traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage of both conventions — ironically, the tradition of gavel-to-gavel coverage had been started by NBC in 1948 because it was a cheap way of filling air time: just set up a few cameras and a control room to switch between them, and air whatever happened — ABC announced what they called their “Unconventional Convention Coverage,” which included cutting the live coverage to just an hour and a half each evening and including talking heads to explain it all to their audience. They also noticed the popularity of William F. Buckley, Jr. as the editor of the National Review and even more because he was already a successful TV personality: he had launched his PBS show Firing Line in 1966 and had made it his trademark to invite liberals and Leftists onto the show and skewer them with his weird blend of high-falutin’ language and outright sarcasm.

They sought out Buckley and asked if he’d be willing to do nightly debates on the conventions as part of ABC’s coverage along with a Left-leaning partner, and they asked Buckley whom he would not debate. “I won’t debate a Communist,” Buckley said, “and I won’t debate Gore Vidal.” So Vidal was precisely the person ABC went after. Vidal had acquired an odd literary reputation as one of the first World War II servicemembers to write a novel about it, Williwaw, only to trash his reputation almost immediately with his second book, The City and the Pillar, which became famous as the first work of English literature to treat Gay relationships as morally, ethically and psychologically equivalent to straight ones. The subject matter of this book led to decades of speculation about Vidal’s own sexuality — and Vidal’s response was essentially to propound what is now called “Queer theory” decades before the term was coined. Vidal thought it was wrong, both morally and psychologically, to classify human sexual behavior into boxes marked “straight,” “Gay” or “Bi” — according to him, people just had sex with whomever was willing and available, and sometimes those were people of the opposite sex and sometimes those of the same sex, and it didn’t really matter and nobody should really care. This attitude seemed cutting-edge in the relentlessly homophobic 1950’s, au courant in the “Swinging Sixties” — when Vidal published what became his most famous and best-selling novel, Myra Breckinridge, whose depiction of its Transgender title character was bold and ground-breaking then but would probably seem hopelessly retro today — dated in the “Gay Liberation” 1970’s and au courant again when the Queer theorists emerged in the last years of Vidal’s life and he could have the legitimate satisfaction of saying, “I’ve been telling you that all these years!” He lived in Rapallo, Italy in a bizarre house literally built onto the side of a cliff (it’s shown in this film) — at least until the last few years, when he was no longer physically able to do the climb to get to it — though he also maintained residences in New York and Los Angeles. In addition to his novels he also wrote nonfiction essays, many of them stinging commentaries on politics, and he dabbled in screenwriting; he was one of the writers trooped into and out of the 1950’s version of Ben-Hur (though he’s not credited; the film lists Karl Tunberg as its only writer), and a clip of Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur is included in Best of Enemies as an illustration of Vidal’s contention that the United States had become an empire, and would therefore meet the same “decline and fall” fate of Rome and all other previous empires.

The Buckley-Vidal commentaries were an instant sensation — TV reviewers at the time called them the only reason anybody would want to watch ABC’s otherwise truncated convention coverage — and the thesis of filmmakers Gordon and Neville (and Tom Graves, who shares a co-writing but not a co-directing credit with them) is that they set the tone for the highly politicized, partisan media of today. Not only that: Gordon, Neville and Graves argue that in their on-air arguments (you really can’t call them “debates” because the two spent much of their air time talking over each other and the so-called “moderator,” veteran newscaster Howard K. Smith, one of “Murrow’s Boys” whom ABC had hired away from CBS to add gravitas to their news, didn’t even try to stop them) Buckley and Vidal set the tone and laid out the issues for all the political debates we’ve had in this country since. I’ve long since believed that we’re still living in the shadow of the 1968 election overall — just four years after Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them got 57 percent of the vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent, thereby creating the Right-wing coalition that won seven of the 10 Presidential elections between 1968 and 2004, cost the Democrats their long-standing domination of Congress and still persists today. What’s more, the Right-wing Republicans and their Wallace-ite rivals who later became their allies did it through a combination of race and culture, swinging the white ethnic workers that had been the principal beneficiaries of the New Deal from Democratic to Republican by tapping into their anxieties about civil rights and cultural shifts — while at the same time shifting the South from solid Democratic to solid Republican. (The grim truth is that as long as the Republicans can hold the South in their coalition — and I usually define “the South” as the 11 former Confederate states plus Missouri — they will win the Presidency. The three Democrats who’ve been elected President since Johnson have won by cracking the otherwise solid Republican South — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton by being white Southerners themselves and Barack Obama by being Black and thereby getting enough Black votes to pick off a few Southern states despite huge white opposition.)

William Buckley is an odd figure because Gordon, Neville and Graves try to make him out as an avatar of the “new conservatism” that started with the founding of his magazine, National Review, in 1955, and they cite Right-wingers like Ronald Reagan attesting to the importance of National Review in forming their political thinking and helping guide them in office when they had to figure out how to implement conservative ideas and turn them into actual policies. That’s true, but stylistically Buckley is as much the dying ember of the old American conservatism as the fanning flame of the new; his (affected) patrician accent and his extensive vocabulary mark him as a man of the Old Right, and he’d have done poorly on talk radio or Fox News because he was incapable of speaking in sound bites. Some of Buckley’s sentences get so convoluted, not only from the obscurity of some of his word choices but their tangled grammatical structure, it’s often hard to figure out exactly what he was trying to say. What’s amazing about watching the Buckley-Vidal debates, generously excerpted for Best of Enemies, today is that these are two people who consider themselves intellectuals and obviously love the higher reaches of the English language; they go out of their way to present themselves as urbane and sophisticated even while they’re also doing the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove number, insulting each other in ways that mostly preserve the pretense of urbanity and gentlemanly debate — except when they don’t. What became the most famous part of the debates started with Buckley defending the actions of the Chicago Police Department against nonviolent protesters at the Democratic Convention by saying that during World War II “some people were pro-Nazi and they were well treated by those who ostracized them — and I'm for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you [Vidal] don't care because you have no sense of identification with … ,” at which point Vidal interrupted with a personal insult against Buckley: “The only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Smith tried to restore civility by telling both Buckley and Vidal, “Now, let’s not call names.” Buckley, who’d previously taken a lot of heat from other Right-wingers for keeping neo-Nazis and open white supremacists out of the pages of National Review, got angry, rose from his seat, leaned over to Vidal and said, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face, and you'll stay plastered” — the iron fist emerging from the velvet glove and showing that at its base, no matter how many intellectual pretensions it puts on, at the base of Right-wing “thought,” if you can call it that, is sheer thuggery.

According to Buckley’s Wikipedia page, he “later apologized in print for having called Vidal a ‘queer’ in a burst of anger rather than in a clinical context, but also reiterated his distaste for Vidal as an ‘evangelist for bisexuality’ … ‘The man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction, and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.’” Both Buckley and Vidal got so wrapped up in the debate and the mutual hatred it evoked that they wouldn’t shut up about each other even after it was over; both Buckley and Vidal published retrospective articles about the encounters in Esquire magazine, and Buckley sued both Vidal and Esquire for libel over Vidal’s allegation that Buckley’s family had vandalized a Connecticut synagogue in 1944 after the rabbi’s wife sold their house to a Jewish family, and the hints Vidal dropped that Buckley himself might have had same-sex sexual attractions. Vidal counter-sued over Buckley’s claim that Myra Breckinridge was pornography, and Esquire settled out of court with Buckley — pissing off Vidal, who had been excited about the prospect of confronting Buckley again in a court of law. Vidal’s grudge against Buckley persisted to the end of his life; one friend interviewed in Best of Enemies said that every time he visited Vidal’s house Vidal would run him a copy of the ABC debates with Buckley, and though the first time he saw them they’d been interesting, eventually Vidal’s continual re-screenings of them reminded him of the scene in Sunset Boulevard in which Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), forgotten star of silent films, re-runs her old movies again and again and again while her writer/gigolo Joe Gillis (William Holden) watches with a sort of bemused contempt mixed with pity. I saw Gore Vidal myself at a peace rally in San Diego in 2008, not long after Buckley’s death, and he couldn’t keep from mentioning that he had had the satisfaction of surviving him.

In Best of Enemies, Gordon, Neville and Graves argue that the Buckley-Vidal TV encounters were trail-blazing and encouraged other networks to put on people with dramatically opposed political views and let them have at each other, though most of the subsequent shows of that type, like The McLaughlin Report and the “Point/Counterpoint” segments between former National Review contributor James Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander, were out-and-out verbal slugfests and lacked the veneer of civility and intellectual respectability Buckley and Vidal had at least tried to bring to theirs. In a tag scene the filmmakers acknowledge that even the idea of having people with different ideologies on TV at the same time seems hopelessly retro in the age of outlets like Fox News, where the biases of the on-air personalities and of those paying them are out in the open and the only reason they have anyone even vaguely Left is to ridicule them as savagely as possible. The Right has evolved in this country into a movement of resentment without the veneer of intellectual respectability Buckley tried to give it, and the extent to which Buckley’s brand of conservatism is out of date is indicated by the special issue of National Review published earlier this year which consisted entirely of articles by National Review contributors denouncing Donald Trump. In some ways Buckley and Trump have similarities — like Trump, Buckley showed up for the on-air debates with Vidal without having done any extensive preparation, while Vidal had read (or had his staff read) National Review in depth so he could skewer Buckley either with his own quotes or ones from pieces he’d published — but in some ways they’re distinctly different figures. Buckley did not come from an upper-class background (while Vidal did) — though he went out of his way to adopt a famously effete, supercilious manner to suggest that he did — while Trump is the reverse: a man who was born into the American elite (albeit a lower rung of it — Trump’s father Fred was a successful property owner and real-estate developer in New York but he only worked the outer boroughs; it was Donald who, with the help of super-lawyer, former aide to Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy and closeted Gay man Roy Cohn, who broke the family into the “big time,” Manhattan) who’s reinvented himself as a working-class thug spewing forth the kind of rhetoric one would expect to hear in dive bars where white ethnics done out of jobs by globalization and the increasing supply of immigrants and people of color go to vent their hatreds and wait for a savior who can do something about what ails them.