Best of Enemies gives a gripping account of the momentous ideological clash between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 presidential primaries. In a bid for ratings, ABC (widely considered the “budget car rental of television news”) pitted conservative political commentator Buckley against Vidal, the creator of transsexual literary icon Myra Breckinridge and the one person (bar all communists) whom Buckley had sworn never to appear on screen with.
The aptly titled tale is relayed through an array of archival footage (including excerpts from the great spar itself), interspersed with interviews from linguistic and media scholars as well as close associates of the late protagonists’.
Buckley was the founding father and outspoken editor of The National Review, a rightly aligned publication that inspired and shaped Reagan-era politics (good one Bill). Vidal was a poignant, progressively-minded writer, who once referred to Buckley’s semi-monthly conservative musings as “always to the right and almost always in the wrong”. The disdain was mutual. Buckley viewed Vidal as a kingpin for liberalism: a dangerous narcotic indulged in by restless, ill-contented individuals that had strayed from their religious and cultural institutions. Each man personified the lifestyle that the other despised and fought to destroy.
Although Vidal never actually went to college, he played the ivory tower bound liberal archetype well. At a time when homosexuals were popularized as reincarnates of the Devil Herself, Vidal had the nerve to stare into the camera and boldly declare that the difference between homosexuals and their hetero counterparts was “about the difference between someone who has brown eyes and someone who has blue eyes”. In stark contrast, Buckley defied his ideological stereotype: He never came across as a toupeed Trump Tower bound buffoon. Indeed, Buckley was almost devoid of Comedy Central fodder. An eloquent and highly skilled debater, Buckley would climb atop the intellectual soapbox and look his liberal opponents square in the eye.
Against all projected odds, ABC’s Buckley-Vidal showdown captivated mass America. According to network ratings, audiences held greater interest in the debate between two smart-mouthed political pundits (both failures in their own respective bids for office) than they did for those actually contending for a party-endorsed nomination.
Throughout his career, Buckley had so brilliantly and consistently avoided the traps carefully lain out for him by Vidal and other prominent liberal mouthpieces. However, one evening amidst the Democratic Party convention, he slipped on a Swastika stamped banana peel, failing to quell his instinctual response to Vidal’s likening of the Republican Party to the Nazi Party. He hit back with a vicious homophobic slur, “Now listen, you queer…”. A current day linguist expert explains that in 1968 “queer” carried the sorts of connotations that the six letter F and N words carry today. It is unclear whether such an unprecedented verbal assault was the result of Buckley’s fear and loathing of the LGBT community, repressed sexual fantasies of the non-hetero variety (as was later suggested by Vidal), or a mixture of both hate and desire.
Vidal had set out to expose right-wing ideology as he saw it: illogical, fear-driven, and hate-filled. In the eyes of Vidal, the public, and the filmmakers, Vidal walked away victorious. For better and for worse, Buckley, Vidal, and network news were never the same.
CONCLUSION: Best Of Enemies excels in its concept, execution, and timing. Educational though it may be, it’s as enjoyable as it is thought provoking. I doubt that we’ll see a better political documentary this year.