1968 was a turbulent year. Marin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy had both been murdered, opposition to the Vietnam war was at its height, the Tet offensive had shattered the US government’s claim that they were winning that war, and racial tensions were soaring. It was in this volatile environment that the two political parties held their nominating conventions. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was notorious for mayor Richard Daley imposing what was essentially a police state, with tanks and armored vehicles patrolling the streets and the violent clashes that ensued. Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool (1969) captures the mood well.
TV at that time was dominated by two networks CBS and NBC who covered the conventions wall-to-wall. The fledgling ABC was a very lowly third in the ratings at that time and could not afford to provide such blanket coverage and instead chose to have a 90-minute daily summary that included a series of ten debates during the two conventions featuring William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. Jim Holt provides an excellent review of the encounter.
Both were well-known figures, Buckley being the founder of the influential conservative magazine National Review and a vigorous right-wing polemicist, and Vidal a prolific novelist whose work touched on a wide range of topics dealing with American history, politics, gender, and sexuality. It was well known that these two people loathed each other, each thinking the other represented the worst of America. Vidal thought Buckley was a preening and dangerous pseudo-intellectual who was advocating taking the country in a dangerous direction while Buckley thought that Vidal represented the cultural degeneration of America.
Vidal had just published the groundbreaking and hit camp novel Myra Breckenridge that took on issues of gender, sexuality and transexuality (it was the first novel in which a major character undergoes a sex change) and that launched a major assault on the entrenched cultural politics and mores of that time, adding to Buckley’s view of Vidal as simply beyond the pale. Both had run for political office and lost, Buckley for mayor of New York and Vidal for Congress.
While holding opposing views, they also had differing styles of speaking. Vidal was clipped in his speech and had an impish smile while Buckley spoke in a languid patrician drawl delivered with a sneer. While both highly literate, Buckley relied on his wits and debating skills and had a repertoire of tricks to get under the skin of his opponents but was somewhat lazy when it came to preparation. This was a major weakness that was glaringly exposed when he took on Noam Chomsky and Chomsky was able to adroitly side-step his rhetorical gambits and expose his dubious reasoning. Vidal was meticulous in his research and preparation and was thus able to catch Buckley flat-footed on occasion.
Those debates have become legendary because it soon became clear that the nominating conventions that were supposed to be the subject matter for the debates were merely sideshows and these two were focused on attacking the other person, both personally and the viewpoint they represented. This film has clips of all ten along with portraits of the protagonists and commentary of the contemporary events in which they occurred.
Watching it, I was struck by how prescient Vidal was about the direction in which the country was headed. Here are two quotes. “In the United states 5% of the pop have 20% of the income and the bottom 20% have 5% of the income” (of course, it is much, much worse worse now) and “The nice thing about the Republican party is that every four years after denigrating the poor among themselves, referring to them as freeloaders who don’t want to work, and I have many quotes here from Ronald Reagan, and then every four years you’ll get these crocodile tears for the poor people because they need their vote.” Vidal also foresaw the US becoming an empire and thus causing its decay from within.
But what people remember most was when Vidal called Buckley a ‘crypto-Nazi’. This enraged Buckley who called Vidal a ‘queer’ and threatened that he would sock him in the jaw if he called him a Nazi again. Buckley was quivering with anger while Vidal remained cool and this was the moment at which Buckley lost the debate and for the rest of his life he seemed haunted by the fact that he had used that slur and lost his composure on national TV. He could not let it go, the fight continuing later in the pages of Esquire magazine and in the courts.
Here is the 13-minute debate that featured the famous cypto-Nazi clip. The whole thing is worth watching but that part begins at the 9:20 minute mark.
The Buckley-Vidal debates were lively and involved deep disagreements over fundamental issues of politics and were a ratings hit for ABC. But they are also credited with creating the current debased state of political discussion in the US media where on any issue they bring on people with known opposing views and then have them talk, or yell, through each other.
Here’s the trailer for the film.