Will Intellectual Combat Ever Top William Buckley vs. Gore Vidal? A New Documentary Suggests Not

The antipathy they felt was personal at root, perhaps even psychosexual. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images/2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
Crypto-nazi vs. G**damn Queer
As a new documentary
shows, they don’t make ’em
like William Buckley
and Gore Vidal anymore.
Photograph by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

In 1968, there existed two especially splendid exemplars of a now-extinct species: “celebrity intellectual.” They were Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Then in their early 40s, Vidal and Buckley became nationally famous in a way that no intellectual is today. Both got onto the cover of Time; both were regulars on The Tonight Show; both made much-publicized runs for office; both provided fodder for stand-up comics. Unlike the common ruck of intellectuals, even “public” intellectuals, these two were performers: skilled controversialists whose highbrow combat could be staged as mass entertainment.

Vidal and Buckley were both patrician in manner, glamorous in aura, irregularly handsome, self-besottedly narcissistic, ornate in vocabulary, casually erudite, irrepressibly witty, highly telegenic, and by all accounts great fun to be around. They were powerfully connected, both politically and socially: Buckley was on close terms with Reagan and Nixon, and Buckley’s wife, Pat, was the doyenne of Park Avenue society (she ran the Met gala before Anna Wintour); Vidal, the grandson of a senator, shared a stepfather with Jackie Kennedy and had been a confidant of her first husband, JFK, as well as an intimate friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, Princess Margaret, and Tennessee Williams. Each spoke in a theatrical accent of his own invention: They did not merely have opinions, they pronounced them.

Also, they warmly hated each other. Buckley — founder of National Review, host of the talk show Firing Line, syndicated newspaper columnist, and onetime New York mayoral candidate — was a man of the right. Vidal — best-selling novelist, Broadway playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and two-time congressional candidate — was a man of the left. But this did not explain the intensity of their mutual loathing. The antipathy was personal at root, perhaps even psychosexual.

It was in 1968, a presidential-election year, that ABC came up with a bold idea. What if, during the political conventions taking place that summer, these two notorious enemies could be coaxed into appearing together on live TV to argue politics with each other? Wouldn’t that boost the network’s dismal third-place ratings? Wouldn’t it be ripping-good theater?

It proved to be more ripping than the network could foresee. Despite their aversion to each other, Buckley and Vidal were unable to resist this proposition: They both lusted for the sort of fame that television could provide them as salesmen for their ideas. (“Never turn down the opportunity to have sex or to be on television” was Vidal’s motto.) Their series of ten nightly clashes — beginning at the relatively staid Republican convention in Miami and continuing through the bloodily tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago — went from stylish vituperation to arch bitchiness to near fisticuffs, culminating in an explosive exchange between the two combatants that left network executives and viewers at home not quite able to believe what they had heard: Vidal calling Buckley a “pro- or crypto-Nazi” and Buckley calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to “sock” him “in the goddamn face.” Such language on television was unprecedented. As Dick Cavett later commented: “The network nearly shat.”

I had a rather different reaction, watching the spectacle on live TV as a 13-year-old boy. I thought it was simply thrilling. I had never heard anyone say “goddamn” on TV before, or even “queer,” at least in that specialized pejorative sense. I was a “teen for Gene” — that is, a callow supporter of the liberal antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy — so my political sympathies were naturally with Vidal, who deplored our ruinous imperial meddling in Vietnam, as against Buckley, who was so hawkish that he talked cavalierly of using tactical nuclear weapons against Hanoi. But I was mesmerized by Buckley’s rhetorical deftness, by his eloquent and often deadly ripostes. I fantasized about going up against the great conservative icon myself some day (which, as it happens, I eventually did, to no great effect).

The epic parry and thrust was unforgettable to those who saw it on TV — not quite rising, perhaps, to the standard of Gladstone and Disraeli, but certainly better than anything we’ve witnessed since. When Nixon was asked to what purpose he would put the auditorium of his presidential library, he said it should be used to reenact “great debates like — oh, Vidal and Buckley.”

But why reenact them when we have the tapes? A couple of years ago, I discovered that bits and pieces of the original debate broadcasts had been uploaded to YouTube. Out of nostalgia, I have watched them repeatedly — enough that I am able to do a fairly creditable impression of Vidal and Buckley, which I perform, without prompting, during any lull at a dinner party. I have learned to mimic the way Buckley meticulously intones all three syllables of the word “queer”: “Now, listen, you quee-ay-uh …”

And now the battle royal between Vidal and Buckley is the subject of a superbly entertaining documentary, Best of Enemies. Drawing on archival footage (supplemented by the actors Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow), the film captures the high drama of the debates and provides a nostalgia bath for those of us wistful about that vanished era when men of letters would engage in highbrow jousting on national TV — and when everybody wanted to watch.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a year that opened with the Tet Offensive and continued with the abrupt announcement that President Johnson would not seek a second term, the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and weeks of arson and looting in American cities. The country appeared to be coming apart. And then from the Democratic convention came the televised spectacle of out-of-control police savagely beating antiwar protesters.

Given the grim backdrop, it is remarkable how funny the documentary manages to be. We are treated to the sight of Republican women arriving in Miami, their hair blue-rinsed and their pastel-tinted dresses with matching accessories carefully coordinated by convention organizers so as not to appear “garish” on TV. The candidate Richard Nixon is seen as he deplanes, striking his enduringly ridiculous trademark V-for-victory pose, his face a grinning mask, his lapels around his ears.

Then there are the preening principals: Buckley at the helm of his sailboat flashing that “It’s good to be Bill” smile of his; Vidal brooding sardonically in the study of La Rondinaia, his magnificent Italian residence built into a cliff high over the Gulf of Salerno — where, in the last decades before his death, an amplified voice from tourist boats in the Mediterranean waters far below could daily be heard announcing in a dozen languages, “There, in his villa, lives the famous American writer Gore Vidal.”

How equally pitted were they? Well, Buckley was “the great debater of his time,” and Vidal was “the great talker of his time” — so observes Sam Tanenhaus, a former New York Times editor long at work on a biography of Buckley. And there was a sort of perverse Freudian reciprocity between Vidal and Buckley that heightened their mutual wariness. As Tanenhaus puts it, “Each one saw in the other a kind of exaggerated image of his own anxious version of himself.”

The encounter at the 1968 conventions was not their first; the two had already had a couple of televised colloquies in the early ’60s as suave spokesmen for their respective points of view. Their negative chemistry had been instant. To Buckley, Vidal seemed a dangerous left-wing extremist and no doubt a pervert. To Vidal, Buckley seemed “a sort of right-wing Liberace.” Their erudite to-and-fro of ideas, accompanied by velvety insults, made for exhilarating TV — like a Noël Coward play, said the New York Herald Tribune.

Just before they met at the conventions, Vidal managed to further arouse Buckley’s disgust, publishing a best-selling satirical sexual fantasy called Myra Breckinridge — in which, among other interesting plot developments, the transsexual title character rapes a corn-fed straight guy with a strap-on dildo.

Buckley lost no time in calling attention to Breckinridge in the 1968 debates, insinuating that authorship of this “perverted” piece of “pornography” disqualified Vidal as a serious commentator. When Vidal opened the first debate in Miami by calling the Republicans the “party of greed,” Buckley immediately responded that “the author of Myra Breckinridge is well acquainted with the imperatives of greed.”

But Vidal was ready for him. “If I may say so, Bill, before you go any further, that if there were a contest for Mr. Myra Breckinridge, you would unquestionably win it,” he replied. “I based the entire style polemically upon you — passionate and irrelevant.” This irked Buckley, and even more so his wife, who complained, “Two hundred million Americans think William F. Buckley is a screaming homosexual.”

The back-and-forth innuendo continued through the debates, with Buckley referring to Vidal as “feline” and his political analysis as “neurotic” and “diseased,” and Vidal calling Buckley “the Marie Antoinette of the right wing.” When Vidal, citing an editorial that Buckley had written advocating the preemptive bombing of China’s nuclear facilities, referred to “that magazine whose name I will not mention,” Buckley sneeringly said, “We know that you’d like nothing to sully your lips.” Vidal shot back, sotto voce: “You’ll eat it first.”

Amid all the acidulated repartee, Buckley and Vidal managed to articulate sharply opposing views on the issues: race and poverty, “law and order,” containment versus rollback in the Cold War, the morality of intervention abroad, the limits of empire, and the toleration of dissent. And they did this with a degree of eloquence and intellectual sophistication — marked by casual references to the Monroe Doctrine, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the Congress of Vienna — not seen on TV today.

Then, in their penultimate debate, it all blew up. That day in Chicago had been the most violent of the Democratic convention, as Mayor Daley’s police exuberantly bloodied antiwar demonstrators with their clubs in what became known as the “Massacre of Michigan Avenue.” From the podium of the convention, Connecticut senator Abe Ribicoff denounced the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago,” looking directly at Daley. The enraged Daley jumped up from his seat, the empurpled veins in his face almost bursting, and shouted something at Ribicoff — which, though unmiked, could clearly be made out on the mayor’s lips by TV viewers: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch!”

The mayhem strained the already taut nerves of Vidal and Buckley. Vidal had seen it up close, driving, accompanied by Arthur Miller and Paul Newman, into a cloud of tear gas. A sleep-deprived Buckley had been kept up the night before by what he called the “sheer utter obscenities” of the demonstrators in the park 14 floors below his hotel window. In the debate Vidal said, “It’s like living under a Soviet regime here,” whereas Buckley expressed his contempt for the demonstrators — who, he claimed, had provoked the police reaction by chanting the name of Ho Chi Minh and raising a Viet Cong flag.

Then a seemingly innocuous question was posed by the moderator: Wasn’t the display of the Viet Cong flag by the demonstrators a “provocative act,” rather like “raising a Nazi flag in World War II?”

Leaping at the comparison, Buckley said that those who “egg on” the enemy to shoot our soldiers in Vietnam should at the very least be “ostracized” the way “pro-Nazi” Americans were. Upon which Vidal interjected, “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” In the split second it took Buckley to register this remark, his jaw tightened and his usually cool features contorted in a rictus of hatred. “Now, listen, you queer,” he said, lingering with contempt over the word, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

Then, as Vidal blinked his moist eyes and cooed, “Oh, Bill, you’re too extraordinary,” Buckley leaned forward, looking to be on the verge of delivering the sock-to-the-goddamn-face then and there, on live TV. But instead, he fell back again — perhaps under the restraint of a clavicle brace he was wearing under his suit, the result of a broken collarbone he had sustained in a sailing accident — and declared, “Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography and stop making any allusions of Nazism to someone who served in the infantry in the last war.” Whereupon Vidal, who knew that Buckley had never actually made it into combat during World War II, shouted, “You were not in the infantry! Now you’re distorting your own military record!”

As the two men removed their earpieces at the end of the debate, a smiling Vidal whispered to Buckley, “Well, I guess we gave them their money’s worth tonight!”

Buckley, though, was indignant. In the aftermath of the debate, he brought a libel suit against Vidal and against Esquire for giving Vidal space for further animadversions (Buckley had earlier been given the same chance). For the rest of his life, Buckley looked back on the affray with pain — not because he had called Vidal a “queer,” but because he had been goaded into losing his vaunted composure. When, in a 1999 interview with Buckley, Ted Koppel showed the “Nazi”-“queer” excerpt from the debates, a stunned Buckley was uncharacteristically speechless. He had thought — he had hoped — the tape had been destroyed. Vidal, who bragged of the encounter that he had “enticed the cuckoo to sing its song,” knew better. He had obtained a complete set of tapes and reveled in playing them, night after night, for a captive audience of guests at his Italian villa. One of them, in the documentary, likens Vidal in his dotage to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

What makes Best of Enemies so poignant is the sense of loss it leaves one with. Buckley and Vidal, each deemed a “national treasure” at the time, are now largely forgotten, which is sad. And we have no one like them today, which is sadder. We do have plenty of “public intellectuals” — scholars, thinkers, and literary types who write for the middle-to-highbrow press and give lectures at the 92nd Street Y. Some of them tub-thump against religion; some take brave stands on sexual culture; some run for political office. But their disputes play out on Twitter and other social media, before an audience fragmented into a thousand niche groups. And none of them are glamorous and magnetic the way Buckley and Vidal were — or also-departed peers Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, and Truman Capote.

Yet there is something paradoxical about this. Why should we rue the disappearance of the “celebrity intellectual” when those who achieved that status so easily pass into cultural oblivion, as Buckley and Vidal are well on their way to doing? If the species were truly important, would its members not leave some sort of enduring legacy?

Near the end of Best of Enemies, it is suggested that the televised display of hostility between Vidal and Buckley in 1968 was the beginning of a long decline in the quality of political discourse on TV and other media — that it was, as one observer puts it in the documentary, “a harbinger of an unhappy future.” We are regaled with images of today’s American cable-news talking heads — Bill O’Reilly and the rest of his ilk — shouting down and abusing one another. Jon Stewart is shown chastising the hosts of the political gabfest Crossfire: “You’re doing theater when you should be doing debate!”

But debate and theater are not mutually exclusive. Buckley and Vidal demonstrated that in their epic clash. All you need is a pair of fiercely clever controversialists, skilled in the art of mandarin invective and the practice of malice, who crave fame as salesmen for their implacably opposed worldviews. We seem not to be breeding those anymore.

*This article appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.