When Conservatives and Liberals Threw Punches

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal appear in one of a series of televised debates in August 1968. The debates, created by ABC to attach to the two 1968 conventions–-Republicans in Miami and Democrats in Chicago-–became the prototype for every television talking head show for the next half-century. ABC Photo Archives/Getty

The directors of The Best of Enemies, a documentary about the 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, could have produced a riveting movie simply by splicing together old debate footage. This movie is about many weighty matters--politics, ideology, history, society and the media--but the delicious spectacle of watching two sexy men in their prime, with rapier wit, speaking in the accents of a gone American elite, slicing each other into fine ribbons, makes the film a guilty indulgence.

These two ghosts from a bygone era still make great television. It worked so well, in fact, that the series of debates, created by ABC to attach to the two 1968 conventions–Republicans in Miami and Democrats in Chicago–became the prototype for every television talking head show for the next half-century.

Sadly, no one has ever done it better.

These were two aristocratic public intellectuals in their prime--each was an essayist and novelist--tossing off erudite commentary as they fought ferociously for their respective sides of the political divide. Buckley was, of course, the leading conservative intellectual of his day, while Vidal represented a swath of ideology to the left of conventional liberalism.

Fifty-five years on, the chasm between them has never really been bridged.

Buckley, in seersucker and fresh off the yacht, was the embodiment of conservative cool–a coolness that the right, to its everlasting dismay, has never regained despite the best efforts of a generation of pretenders. Casually cruel, entitled to his privilege, jaw locked, Buckley was also a caricature of the New York-Connecticut snob, scooting around Manhattan on a Vespa, yachting to Cozumel instead of doing his homework. But he was also something more than that. He was a defender of the rights of the privileged, founder of the National Review, always in favor of the forces of order--which essentially in the 1960s was the nuclear bomb and the truncheons and tear gas of the cops-bashing protesters, or, as Bucky would sneer, this mob. He even ran for mayor of New York.

Vidal, no less aristocratic, the pansexual satyr with the sardonically lifted eyebrow, is equally seductive. Fresh off a bestselling book with a transsexual as the main character--later made into a film with Raquel Welch as the cross-gender hero--Vidal was steeped in the classics, practically an expat living in Italy. He deeply hated what Buckley stood for and actually did his homework.

Thus Vidal knew that Buckley had, among other things, supported nuking North Vietnam and Red China, and he called him "a bloodthirsty neurotic," among other ad hominem insults for it. Buckley, less prepared, nonetheless never missed a riposte. "We all know that your tendency is to be feline," Buckley hisses at Vidal.

The casualness of their erudition, and their willingness to wield it, is one of the greatest differences between our era and theirs. Watching them, we see what has been lost. Vidal, warning that "these empires are dangerous things, as Pericles warned." Probably no greater a percentage of Americans in 1968 than today knew who Pericles was, but more of them would have recognized it as authoritative and wouldn't have minded looking it up. Today, no pundit worth his pancake makeup or her hairspray would think of referencing a classical authority to back up an argument both because they don't know it and their fear of seeming elitist. One can imagine a Sarah Palin crowd-pleasing eye-roll. "Pericles who?" The relevance of humanist education is a thing of the past.

The movie features a cast of commentators including Frank Rich, Christopher Hitchens, Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus and Vidal's last magazine editor, Matt Tyrnauer. They help put the debates and references in context. Tanenhaus describes the left's tendency to name-call the right, and how it put the patrician Buckley in a bad spot. He was accustomed to but clearly uncomfortable with being accused of bigotry and greed.

In the 1968 election, "law and order" was code for race, code for fear of brown people marching on the streets and coming to take your things. At one point Buckley took this on directly, saying, "I wish you could say 'law and order' without critics saying, oh you are talking about race." Buckley had taken on the racialist John Birch Society and felt himself to be anything but a hater.

He wasn't afraid of referencing the use of violence. In other venues Buckley occasionally joked about socking people "in the goddamned face"–always followed by a laugh. But there was one epithet Buckley couldn't brush off with his famous grin. When Vidal called him a "crypto-Nazi" for supporting the Chicago police, Buckley lost his famous cool and–by extension–the debate.

The "cherry bomb," as Christopher Hitchens called it, exploded Buckley's customary cool. "Now listen you queer," he seethed, " I served in the war and you can't call me a Nazi, or I'll punch you in the face and you will be so plastered you won't get up."

The words were one thing, the rictus of hatred on the normally contained face was astonishing. The filmmakers helpfully scrawl the words on the screen and rerun the segment both with and without sound, the latter to allow the audience to better to absorb not just the the facial expression but the left hand--that effete, elegant, long-fingered hand, used to the typewriter and the martini and the jib--curling literally into a fist and unfurling and half curling back again, beyond the control of its owner, like a feral beast.

Vidal was as shocked as the rest of the world at his foe's meltdown, but onscreen, a satisfied smirk tugged at his lips, because, well, he had won. Buckley might deny ever seriously suggesting nuking North Vietnam or the Chinese, but here was the coiled, barely controlled fist–the hand that would, undoubtedly, if its owner were provoked in just the right measure, push the Armageddon button.

The loss of control haunted Buckley to his death. He sued Vidal. Vidal countersued. They carried on their argument for a few years in the pages of Esquire.

In one of the final scenes of the film, Buckley sits for a Ted Koppel interview before a studio audience. Koppel showed the clip of Buckley threatening Vidal, and when he asked Buckley about it, the old fighter for the right was uncharacteristically silent. Tanenhaus says that as soon as the cameras went off, he stalked to the back of the room and said he had been assured those tapes had been destroyed.

Vidal outlived Buckley and spent his dotage in a villa perched on the edge of the Mediterranean from whose vertiginous balcony he could, he said, "watch the decline of Western civilization." Unlike Buckley he didn't want to forget the debates. On the contrary, Matt Tyrnauer says, the aging Vidal was so fond of them that he played them against and again for his guests and for himself. His obsession, in fact, veered deep into Norma Desmond territory. That of course was the Vidal that inspired Buckley's personal loathing–self-indulgent Hollywood narcissist.

As is perhaps fitting given its subjects, the movie is almost entirely peopled by white males. One single black man, a linguist, comments on the language, pointing out that "faggot" was one of the insults from that era that remains verboten in polite society. Not a single female comments on any of it. There are a few shots of Buckley's wife Pat, in bouffant hair and caftan, and a scene in which the news anchor reports that "lady delegates" to the Republican convention who had been instructed to dress so as not to appear garish. When a young woman in one audience asked Buckley whether he approved of miniskirts, he leaned back in his chair, and after a beat replied, "On you, I do."

So much has changed and both men lived long enough to see some of it coming: women graduating at rates higher than men, gays getting marriage, and, of course, a black president.

But this film isn't concerned with those changes as much as with the fragmentation of the media, and the rise of the information bubble. The first two talking heads presaged the end, not the beginning, of the American public intellectual. As Vidal said, there are two things one must never turn down, sex and an invitation to appear on television. In the age of Internet, ubiquitous porn and online hookups, every human being on the planet within range of a phone or laptop is given those two opportunities every single hour of every day.

Spoiled for choice, we are sheep without sheepdogs.

After the screening at Sundance last night, directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon took a few questions.

One of the audience members asked, plaintively: "Can it go back to the way it was?" Meaning, can we, as a nation, expect to ever have political discourse that is authoritative, erudite and, above all, meaningful?

The answer from the podium was No.

The Buckley-Vidal debates could be the high moment in the history of the televised American political debate. But the spectacle contained within itself the seed of the end too. Extreme civility was about to explode and cool William Buckley, whose fate it was to manifest that explosion, would regret it for the rest of his life.