Jul 12, 2015 Film & TV
In a definitive ranking of Gore Vidal’s many literary feuds, his battle with Mailer is more physical (head-butting, punching, drink-throwing); his spat with Capote more catty (Capote, said Vidal, was “a fully-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices”). But for pure vituperative hatred, nothing comes close to Vidal’s decades-long feud with conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr.
The inciting incident — which took place during a series of live televised debates centred on the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions — is explored in the documentary film Best of Enemies, co-directed by Robert Gordon and Academy Award-winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) and featuring in next month’s NZ International Film Festival.
A prolific novelist, playwright and political essayist, Vidal is likely more familiar to international audiences than his opponent. But Buckley was a towering figure in US politics, says Neville. “He was one of the architects of the modern conservative movement. Not only did he found a magazine, National Review, which was the mouthpiece for the New Right, but he hosted his own TV show for 33 years. He’d already been on the cover of Time by the time of the debates, as had Vidal.”
Together, the gay, libertine Vidal and the Catholic conservative Buckley were television dynamite. Both men were intellectuals with roots in America’s aristocratic classes and their early encounters were characterised by withering putdowns, delivered with a raised eyebrow and a self-satisfied smirk.
After Buckley and Vidal left laid-back Miami to accompany the Democrats to protest-torn Chicago, the tone of the debates soured. When Buckley referred to Vietnam protestors as “pro-Nazi”, Vidal replied that “the only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself”. With that, Buckley finally lost his cool. “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 rancour of that exchange lingered. In 1969 both men published essays on the debates, resulting in legal claim and counter-claim, and their mutual animosity sputtered on into crotchety old age. Neville first encountered Vidal as a young magazine fact-checker in the late 80s. “They warned me that Vidal was the hardest fact-checking job in the world. He hated to be told he was wrong, even about a single word.”
Years later, when Neville and Gordon interviewed Vidal for their documentary, they found the wounds still raw. “It was a year and a half before he died, he was in chronic pain and he was extremely cranky. And we sat there asking him questions about Bill Buckley, which was like poking a lion with a stick. He accused us of being ‘Buckley-ites’ because we were trying to bring up these arguments again. To him, the only context in which to talk about Bill Buckley was that Vidal had vanquished him.”
The directors decided not to use the footage in Best of Enemies. “Simply on a creative level, to have included Vidal but not to have Buckley there to speak for himself [Buckley died in 2008], felt wrong.”
So why should we care about the bickering of two upper-class Yankee snobs? Neville says it’s a question he was asked a lot when initially pitching the project. “And the comment I’ve gotten since we started screening it is, ‘I can’t believe how relevant this story still is.’”
Not only did the debates delineate the ideological battles — gay vs straight, atheist vs Christian, peacenik vs hawk — that grew into the full-blown culture wars of later decades; they also ushered in a new style of televised political theatre.
“I’m not saying those debates were the thing that changed American television, but they were one of the things. Heads of TV news at the time told me they took notice. The debates were a big deal and they saw that people would tune in to this kind of friction. The sad thing is, they soon realised they didn’t need the intelligence. They just needed the spark.”
Best of Enemies is screening as part of the NZ International Film Festival, Auckland, July 16–August 2. nziff.co.nz