The Death of Reason

The documentary Best of Enemies explores the significance of a series of debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. held during both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968. The intellectual titans of both the new left and the new right square off in a scheme meant to boost ratings and cut the costs of convention coverage by the perennially-broke ABC network. By that metric, the plan was a success.

There is certainly no love lost between the two: Vidal — the acclaimed novelist and playwright, deconstructionist maestro of critical theory and Hegelian dialectic — and Buckley, the wry smirking genius, intellectual heart of the budding conservative movement and editor of the National Review. What could and should have been a rousing contest of ideas spirals almost instantly into a pissing contest. 

Political junkies and fans of either Buckley or Vidal will enjoy this film, as I did. It is difficult to declare a winner of the debates, as there is little in the way of actual debate that takes place. Vidal, the tactician, launches a relentless personal assault against the man he deems to be the very embodiment of evil, at one point accusing Buckley of being a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley, the WWII veteran, calls Vidal a “queer” and threatens to punch him in the face. Credit Vidal for being clever enough to provoke such an uncharacteristic reaction from the imperturbable Buckley. Credit Buckley for not actually punching him in the face. 

It is tempting to view the Buckley-Vidal debates as the beginning of something new — the origin of the crass partisan punditry that dominates the modern age. From a ratings standpoint, this is almost certainly true. For good or bad, people tuned in to watch the melee.

From a broader standpoint, the Buckley-Vidal debates are a mere historical footnote to the chaos of the Vietnam era. American society, rent violently in two, thrust these men into primetime battle as the personification of a cultural schism.

Regardless of the historical significance, the experience left a deep impression on both men, and they would continue to fight long after the final bell. Neither would fully recover, and the performance would haunt both men for the rest of their lives. (Bijou Metro)

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