Watching Best of Enemies, the new movie about the series of debates Gore Vidal and William Buckley had at the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami and Democratic Convention in Chicago, is a lesson in parallelism. Despite their deep differences, the two were like “matter and antimatter,” or as my wife said, “two models wearing the same dress.”
The series of debates is best known for the so-called “crypto Nazi” debate in Chicago, when Vidal slammed Buckley repeatedly with that sobriquet. Buckley took umbrage, coming back with “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.”
Of course, there was much more to the dynamic than that exchange.
The film makes much of Vidal’s novels and plays, yet focuses less on Buckley’s creative work. It’s important to recall that Buckley fancied himself a novelist, and the recognition that both men were at least comfortable in the realm of fiction opens a line of interpretation: Namely, that Buckley and Vidal were conscious of personae, and that every exchange, every interaction, every public
presentation was a construct.
Vidal, the superior novelist and film and stage dramatist, seemed to understand that more intuitively than Buckley. He rehearsed his ad libs, knowing that their convention night interviews would be remembered ultimately as theater. Thus, we recall their debates as exercises in Vidal getting under Buckley’s skin, and there are some, over the years, who have told me in a matter-of-fact manner that Vidal had won.
It didn’t quite work so neatly. Buckley and his National Review carried on through an ambivalent relationship with the domestic liberalism of the Nixon administration, to become the intellectual house organ for the Reagan Revolution. Reagan and Buckley reinforced each other: Reagan, the vessel for a conservative message that had succeeded in getting people to vote against what populist Democrats frame as class interest; Buckley, the talking points machine, who gave Reagan a philosophy for his campaign.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Buckley’s influence on what conservatism is started to wane. It happened gradually. The Rush Limbaugh/cable news era saw a diminishing of that; even though National Review pushed Newt Gingrich hard, it was Rush who became for many Americans the embodiment of “real” conservatism.
Sept. 11 and its aftermath were not ultimately beneficial to Buckley’s brand of conservatism. In the era of “watch what you say” and “Mission Accomplished,” the “National Greatness” brand of conservatism made that of the aging Buckley seem effete and obsolete.
Buckley eventually corrected course, much as he did in his magazine’s tactical support of Nixon, saying that Bush was not a “true conservative.”
“I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress,” Buckley said in 2006. “And in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge.”
Many on the right took issue, of course, with Buckley’s purging of his strain of the conservative movement of those with dissenting points of view. However, Buckley’s status as the architect of postwar, 20th century conservatism is unmistakable.
Vidal never quite pulled off a similar feat with the left.
Political discourse today is radically different than in 1968. Dozens of hot-take merchants are in the green rooms of Sunday shows as I write this. The patrician styles used by Vidal and Buckley are not to be found on any of them. Nor is an effective independence from party structure.
Many say that the Vidal/Buckley debates augured what was to come. But it seems that the program directors learned a valuable lesson: to move away from the lapidary literary types, and move toward the red-meat merchants who cleave to well-rehearsed talking points. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will be making a film about today’s canned polemicists in 50 years.
A.G. Gancarski is a political reporter and writer for Florida Politics. Column courtesy of Context Florida.