Co-directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies chronicles the series of televised debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, between conservative and liberal pundits, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.
Television convention coverage was usually a staid affair, but Buckley and Vidal set the tone for years to come by going “mano a mano”— perhaps the first time commentators of such different political persuasions presented such stark differences of opinion in a remarkably entertaining fashion. Indeed, ABC, considered the “poor man’s network” at the time (in contrast to powerhouses CBS and NBC), garnered such favorable ratings, that we’re informed by Gordon and Neville that television was “never the same” after the broadcast of these imbroglios.
Buckley, fairly well-known for his Firing Line show on PBS and Vidal, the noted author of various biographical novels of notable American politicians as well as other historical figures, both shared elite prep school backgrounds as well as being masters of the English language. One is struck however, by the true lack of substance as they grapple with the political issues of the day. Instead, each engages in a game of one-upmanship, trading cutting insults in order to humiliate one another.The debate finally takes an ugly turn when Vidal manages to push Buckley’s buttons—calling him a crypto-Nazi and praising the protesters who waved the Vietcong flag and cursed the police outside the Democratic National Convention. Buckley, usually proud of his self-control, suddenly loses it and calls Vidal a “queer” and threatens to punch him in the face. While Vidal argues that the protesters had a perfect right to “free speech,” Buckley regards their actions as the deepest betrayal to their country.
The documentarians supplement the footage of the actual debate with newsroom out takes along with commentary from supporters and detractors of the two men including Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett and James Wolcott.
Buckley is seen much later in life being interviewed, indicating that he was tired of life in general and “ready to die.” While being interviewed by Ted Koppel, Buckley is stunned as he watches footage from the debates where he calls Vidal a “queer.” After the footage is shown, he remarks to a friend that he thought that segment had been destroyed long ago. And Vidal appears equally obsessed with the debates, poring over them repeatedly at his Italian villa, much like an obsessed Norma Desmond watching her old silent pictures in “Sunset Boulevard.”
While Best of Enemies proves to be vastly entertaining, it’s also a cautionary tale about two extremely gifted men who forgot to embrace humor to soften the vitriol between them. In that respect, their ultimate clash on television, should be seen much more in the context of tragedy than mere entertainment or what some others may label as a comic interlude.