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'Best Of Enemies': When Televised Verbal Fireworks Were A Novelty

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'Best Of Enemies': When Televised Verbal Fireworks Were A Novelty

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'Best Of Enemies': When Televised Verbal Fireworks Were A Novelty

'Best Of Enemies': When Televised Verbal Fireworks Were A Novelty

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A new documentary chronicles the famed Gore Vidal-William F. Buckley debates and the beginnings of TV political punditry. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1968, ABC News was dead last in the TV ratings. When time came for the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions that year, the network took a gamble. For its, quote, "unconventional coverage," ABC hired two of the country's most famous political intellectuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum. They faced off in a nightly series of 10 live televised debates - on one side, the novelist and liberal thought leader Gore Vidal, on the other, William F. Buckley, editor of the conservative magazine, The National Review. Both were endowed with verbal flair and acerbic wit. A new documentary tells the story of their explosive, on-air encounters.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BEST OF ENEMIES")

GORE VIDAL: Go back to his pornography and stop making any illusions of...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I beg you to...

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Infantry in the last war...

VIDAL: You were not in the infantry, as a matter of fact

(CROSSTALK)

VIDAL: You were not. You are distorting your own military record.

MARTIN: The film is called "Best Of Enemies." Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon spoke to me about it. And listeners, be advised, the Vidal-Buckley debates contained language some may find offensive. Verbal fireworks are commonplace on TV now. But I asked Morgan Neville to put the Vidal-Buckley debates into historical context.

MORGAN NEVILLE: Well, you have to put yourself back into what TV news was at that time, which was a very civil, sober world. If there was commentary, it was, you know, a well thought-out commentary piece at the end of the nightly news. But that kind of confrontation was something that was really rare at the time.

MARTIN: How did they regard one another when these debates set out? I mean, they disagreed politically. But how did they think of each other as people?

NEVILLE: They had a long history going back. You know, they had squared off in print. And in 1964, they had had a TV tete-a-tete, which ended with Buckley vowing never to want to see Vidal again, which I think was the only time Vidal ever agreed with Buckley. But it was only when ABC brought them together in '68 that the lure of having a national TV audience and a fat paycheck brought them back together.

ROBERT GORDON: And when they had this national TV audience, they could change minds. At that time, you basically had three channels to choose from. And Buckley and Vidal were each intrigued by that possibility of winning thinkers to their side.

MARTIN: Let's kind of walk through this. As you recount the tale in the film, Buckley was fairly lackadaisical about this whole thing at the beginning. And Gore Vidal, on the other hand, did a whole lot of prep. How did that play out in the first debate?

NEVILLE: Well, Buckley had had a TV show, "Firing Line," for a few years at this point and was a master debater - probably the greatest debater of his generation - and had been able to get by in pretty much ever circumstance just by his sheer wit. And what he wasn't expecting is that Gore Vidal did a massive amount of opposition research to come at Buckley from the first bell.

MARTIN: So they wrap up the GOP Convention in Florida, move to the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The film does a good job of illustrating that moment in America, all the tension that's just boiling under the surface. This was the backdrop to their next debate.

NEVILLE: Absolutely. I mean, I think Buckley and Vidal were both stand-ins for what was happening on the streets of Chicago and the streets of America. I mean, they're representing these two different camps that are at war in the streets. And they're at war with their words. And each was looking for a knockout.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BEST OF ENEMIES")

VIDAL: As far as I am concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Feeling that, I will only say...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's not call names.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCKLEY: Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's stop calling names, and let's...

BUCKLEY: Or I'll sock you in the goddamn face, and you'll...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's...

BUCKLEY: Stay plastered.

MARTIN: So there's a lot happening in that exchange, obviously. And if you haven't heard it before, some of the barbs can kind of go by quickly. Can you crystallize what was the most contentious thing in that exchange?

NEVILLE: I think there were two things. I mean, one was Gore calling Bill a crypto-Nazi. Bill had really spent his career trying to rid the right of the anti-Semites and the kooks, as he called them. For him, that was a label he had been trying to avoid and that Gore knew he had been trying to avoid. And at the same time, you can hear Buckley in there call Gore a queer. And that was a label Gore had been trying to avoid. But still, in that moment, you see a smile come across Gore's face as though he sees Buckley's anger leading to, in his mind, a defeat. By the rules of debate, if you lose your cool, you've lost the game.

MARTIN: How did television executives react in this moment? How did America react?

GORDON: Well, you know, this was happening live. There was no editing. There was no delay. So they were aghast. How America reacted is sort of the most interesting thing because as these debates progressed, the ratings were going up. So people began to program these sort of point-counterpoint setups, where two people with opposite sides would come on. And basically from 1968 until now, that's what has happened with political discourse on TV over time from this event.

MARTIN: What happened to these two men after these debates?

NEVILLE: It was something they were asked about for the rest of their lives. It was kind of a high moment for them and a low moment at the same time. And it was something that Buckley was haunted by and refused to ever speak about publicly again.

MARTIN: Did they, at the end, Robert, did they learn to respect one another in a way? Because they were actually so similar in where they had come from and their intellectual curiosity, did they grow to appreciate one another in a different way?

GORDON: The similarity is very interesting. And that's part of what we explore in the film. They were both conquerors of the Eastern establishment from not dissimilar backgrounds - prep schools, published authors. But they really diverged in how they handled this. Did they respect each other when it was done? I don't think so.

NEVILLE: Although, I'll say that we didn't want to make a film to refight the arguments because that's what media does every day. We wanted to make a film about how we argue, trying to have a bigger discussion. Can we at least say, yeah, there's a time when we should come together and really face our opponents and have a real thoughtful, meaningful debate with smart people?

MARTIN: The film was called "Best Of Enemies." The directors are Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. Thanks to both of you.

NEVILLE: Thank you.

GORDON: Thank you, Rachel.

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