The feud between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley, Jr. is legendary. Yet it has not been the subject of a documentary until now. This may be down to the litigious tendencies of the Buckley-Vidal agonism. Best of Enemies is a wonderfully crafted film combining grainy rolls of film with high definition footage. It sets out to encapsulate the clash of egos. More importantly, the project frames the clash as the beginning of the ‘culture wars’: the struggle between two Americas.
In many ways Vidal and Buckley play out the liberal-conservative split in US public life. Though it’s worth noting that Gore Vidal was more than just a liberal. He came out of America’s most radical and populist traditions. Yet he was also a patrician figure. While Buckley was an aristocrat too, he was a proponent of modern conservatism. In his mind, the conservative mind set straddled two fundamental tendencies: social conservatism and economic liberalism (so-called ‘fiscal conservatism’).
As a public intellectual William F Buckley, Jr. carved out his own platform. He founded National Review in 1955. The mission: to propagandise conservative values. Six decades on, we can say Buckley largely succeeded. But not in the ways he may have wanted. He once described the conservative disposition as “standing athwart history, yelling stop”. In the 1950s and 60s ‘yelling stop’ was primarily aimed at the civil rights movement, student radicals, liberal reformers and the anti-war movement. Yet it was much of this ground where Bill Buckley lost.
In the long-run the New Right would win the political and economic battles. The conservatives had not diluted their ideology following the defeat of Goldwater in 1964. In that moment the concessions to civil rights were entrenched for decades to come. The segregationists lost the Southern ‘way of life’. Instead of surrendering, Buckley held on and waited for the right opportunity to arise. It would come in the 1980 election. By then the social movements of the 1960s and 70s were facing the brunt of counter-revolution. This is why 1968 is so important.
As a film Best of Enemies sets out to convey the big themes of the period – sexuality, race, and war – and the contours of the divide. It rightly underlines 1968 for its significance. The whole decade of the 1960s was a highly transient period. The New Deal and the war economy had given birth to the glory years of capitalism. This unparalleled era was witness to great advances in social, economic and technological development. Freedom and economic expansion rode alongside militarism. The pace of change was not registered until the 1960s.
Then the national security state, the standing army, and the state-modified economy found itself shaken to the core. The first generation to come to age in this affluent age would confront major questions: racial, sexual and gender equality. The Vietnam War just emphasised the grotesque traits of the system. The conditions had been there for a long time, but the forces burst out onto the surface all at once. It’s this decade which would give birth to the current world order.
The stakes were high, and 1968 was probably the apogee. It was the year of the student rebellion in France, as well as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Tet offensive signalled the political defeat of the US in Vietnam. Meanwhile the domestic scene was struck by two assassinations: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. These were interesting times. A wave of riots hit American cities, which prompted a response from the police and even the National Guard.
Although, Best Enemies sets this tone, and provides an adequate form, it falls short on political content. The documentarians clearly understand why the Buckley-Vidal debates are important. But the minutia is lost. This is problematic. After all, Buckley and Vidal saw the rise of Ronald Reagan, at that time the Governor of California, for what it would later realise. To be precise, Reagan embodied the forces of reaction – the Christian Right, the libertarians and the neocons – which would act to crush the life out of the post-war settlement.
At the same time, as it loses sight of the major questions, the film does capture the depth of the feud. This is not insignificant. William F Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal became obsessed with one another. But the underlying current of their feud was political. In one part of the film the two of them are compared to matter and anti-matter. As much as Vidal was disgusted by the Chicago police – who were savagely beating protesters – Bill Buckley felt obliged to defend the pigs.
So the bad blood is not at apolitical. Buckley was a reactionary Catholic, who saw value in the fascist regimes of Franco and Pinochet. He argued vociferously for the anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Joe McCarthy. It’s not just that Buckley wanted to preserve the United States as the land of white picket fences, baseball games and hog-roasts. He was a defender of segregation. In 1957 Buckley wrote, in a National Review op-ed, that “the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race”.
For these reasons, we can see why Gore Vidal once said: “Never offend an enemy in a small way”. The footage captures the self-described ‘gentleman-bitch’ winding up the Firing Line host for much of the debates. He had a researcher going through Buckley’s dirty laundry. Vidal wouldn’t let Buckley slip away easily for advocating war against China. The two of them were later locked in a libel case after Vidal implied Buckley was an anti-Semite. But it didn’t stop there. Vidal went on to create William de la Touche Clancey in his book Burr (1973). Clancey is a rapacious Tory sodomite with a darting tongue. Vidal assured the New York Times that Clancey “could, obviously, be based on no one at all”.
Equally, the film portrays how Gore Vidal viewed America, as a fallen republic transformed into an empire, with some cut-outs from Ben Hurr – a movie partially written by Vidal, who always viewed it as a gay love story. For quite different reasons the film adaptation of Myra Breckenridge has been spliced into the documentary. Some of the orgy scenes from Caligula (which Vidal had nothing to do with) are thrown in too. As if such visions depict Vidal’s pansexual utopia. Really this is a misrepresentation of Vidal’s own sexual satires.
The biggest flaw is the lack of political focus. It’s not clear whether the filmmakers feared boring the audience. It is a possibility, but it’s also plausible that they assumed a level of knowledge and interest. It may be the case that the filmmakers wanted to avoid taking sides. It’s certainly the case that the film ends with a trite message: the US needs more debate. Yet the scenes mainly highlight ad hominem remarks. As amusing as such remarks can be, they are ancillary to the substance of the debates. So it draws us into spectacle in order to forsake the descent of politics into mere spectacle.
What we can say about 1968 matters more. The counter-culture secured a great deal on the social front, while the reactionaries made gains in politics and economics. The common terrain was bourgeois individualism. The Reaganites would remake American economy, but they would not restore the ethical and cultural superstructure. Buckley’s social vision would be lost. The world, in which we reside, now runs on social and economic liberalism. The markets have remade the US economy, but the social and cultural lives of Americans have been changed forever.