The network’s televised political debates featured pointed personal insults, rehearsed ad-libs and shopworn clichés. Yet WABC broadcast them live anyway and their ratings soared—47 years ago this summer.
Best of Enemies brilliantly chronicles ABC’s decision to pair William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008) and Gore Vidal (1925-2012) for multiple, spirited discussions during ABC’s coverage of 1968’s Republican and Democratic national conventions. The critically-acclaimed 87-minute documentary is being screened on Wednesday, July 29, at 7:30 p.m., at the Bow Tie Squire Cinemas, 115 Middle Neck Rd, Great Neck, as part of The Gold Coast International Film Festival’s Furman Film Series.
Produced and directed by Grammy Award-winner Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom, for which he won an Academy Award), Best of Enemies illustrates compellingly how today’s on-air shout-fests closely track the ones Buckley and Vidal had nearly five decades ago. When the lights go up in Great Neck later this month, Gordon will answer audience questions via teleconference.
“No one today speaks like these men, but their confrontations ring so contemporary,” says Gordon, who resides in Memphis. “In the focused light of the 1968 national television camera, the seeds are planted for our present media landscape, when the spectacle trumps the content of argument. These Buckley-Vidal debates forecast the present state of civic discourse, when heated and abbreviated by camera lights and corporate sponsors.”
“This is not a film about who wins the argument,” stated Neville, who lives in Los Angeles and crossed paths with Vidal when both worked for The Nation magazine. “It’s a film about how we argue. Ultimately, this is a story about something I care about deeply; how the way we now ‘talk’ and ‘listen’ to each other through media is in fact corrosive to our society. Sometimes I look around and wonder, ‘What happened to the adults in our culture?’ This film, I hope, offers some clues.”
With the presidential nominations of Richard Nixon and Vice President Hubert Humphrey serving as the backdrop, the founder of National Review magazine (Buckley), and the author of bestsellers such as Myra Breckinridge (Vidal), squared off like prizefighters, discussing income inequality, law enforcement tactics and the merits of U.S. military strikes on sovereign nations. It was also clear to anyone watching that the two verbal combatants despised one another, perhaps another reason 10 million Americans tuned in to watch WABC’s convention coverage. WCBS and WNBC had more news viewers at the time than the perennially third-place WABC.
The filmmakers interviewed dozens of people who knew both men, and examine their lives before and after they met on one of the era’s biggest television stages. Buckley, who grew up in a prosperous Connecticut family and graduated from Yale University, was, prior to 1968, the host of a successful television program, Firing Line, in addition to being a published author and an accomplished editor. His one bid for elective office, however, did not go well, with Buckley securing 13 percent of the vote while running on the Conservative Party line in New York City’s 1965 mayoral election.
Vidal was raised primarily in Virginia, the son of President Franklin Roosevelt’s director of the Bureau of Air Commerce and the grandson of a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. Despite having no formal education beyond high school, Vidal wrote a long-running Broadway play (The Best Man), controversial novels (The City and the Pillar), and script-doctored legendary motion pictures (Ben Hur) before 1968. Vidal, as the Democratic nominee, lost a 1960 bid for a U.S. House seat in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.
Individual tickets to the Great Neck showing of Best of Enemies can be purchased at the door for $20 apiece; the charge is $15 in advance ($10 for students). Magnolia Pictures’ theatrical release of Best of Enemies begins on Friday, July 31, at venues in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Toronto.
Mike Barry, vice president of media relations for an insurance industry trade group, has worked in government and journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.