“Best of Enemies” and the US Presidential Election

By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer

With the US election season beginning to kick into high gear, it’s time to prepare ourselves for the onslaught of punditry and childish personal attacks that has come to characterize the American political process. With the current field of candidates and the tenor of the race thus far bordering on the surreal (another Bush, another Clinton, and Donald Trump), I find it instructive to meditate on the roots of the left/right schism, and the abandonment of a “shopping cart” approach to political policies in favor of zero-sum factionalism.

A number of people think similarly, and a cottage industry has sprung up over the last decade around exploring these issues. Historian Rick Perlstein, for example, has authored a series of books (2001’s Before the Storm, 2008’s Nixonland, and last year’s The Invisible Bridge) that magnificently chart the radicalization of the American right under the shadow of international Communism as well as the left’s growing structural weakness and difficulty fighting the nuclear fever.

In addition, a new documentary called Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, takes as its subject a largely forgotten series of debates between the writers Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that took place during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. These debates, the film rightly claims, had enormous implications and developed a format that has come to define the ways in which news is presented and consumed today.

The Miami Republican convention. Photo courtesy Time Magazine.
The Miami Republican convention. Photo courtesy Time Magazine.

1968 was an incredibly tumultuous year for the world. The war in Vietnam ramped up in brutality with the Tet Offensive beginning in January. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered almost back-to-back. The civil rights and anti-war movements turned revolutionary with groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. Riots shut down many major US cities over the summer and resulted in dozens of deaths. America was breaking apart, with the peace and love generation giving way to the sobering comedown of the 1970s.

The political system was in a similar shambles, reflecting the disunity and animosity of the population at large. The Democrats lacked clear leadership and direction after the death of their frontrunner, and the Republican Party had been hijacked by trigger happy ultra-rightists like Arizona’s own Barry Goldwater. The party conventions became opportunities to mobilize like-thinking groups into marching armies aligned with specific sets of policies.

In the midst of this, television network ABC was struggling with ratings and decided to try out a radical new technique to increase viewership during the debates. Their plan consisted of taking two well-known intellectuals, one from the far left (Vidal), and one from the far right (Buckley) and giving them a public forum in which to tear one another limb-from-limb.

Buckley and Vidal at odds. Photo from www.sundance.org.
Buckley and Vidal at odds. Photo from www.sundance.org.

The result was electric. The two men did not like each other, to say the least, and both approached the debates as an opportunity to rhetorically assassinate the other man. Over ten rounds (five for the Republicans in Miami, and five for the Democrats in Chicago), the two bounced between such topics as Vietnam, wealth inequality, nuclear holocaust, the expanding role of American hegemony, and the country’s extreme cultural divide. Their mutual hatred grows more palpable and toxic throughout, with discussion of policy often taking a backseat to caustic attacks on one another’s character. It ended messily; in the second-to-last debate Vidal repeatedly calls Buckley (a veteran of World War Two) a “crypto-Nazi,” and Buckley responds with a homophobic slur and threats of physical violence. ABC’s ratings soared, a valuable recipe for creating drama in the relatively dry scene of politics was discovered, and Vidal and Buckley spent the next three years in court suing one another for defamation of character.

The success of this format (in essence, throw a couple of raging tigers into a cage together and see what happens) has colored not only commentary but the political process itself. Election season does not consist of the restrained presentation of facts and reasonable solutions to problems, but of media events deliberately staged for maximum dramatic effect. What are the currently ongoing Republican debates if not a modern rehashing of the Vidal/Buckley paradigm? Emotion is not something to be checked at the door in favor of rationality, but rather a badge of authenticity, a la John Boehner’s frequent crocodile tears. And as we’ve seen from Mr. Trump’s reprehensible interactions with Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly (and others), it is now apparently allowable for a candidate for the highest office in the country to personally lash out against all who present an opposition. And for this, we have a couple of forgotten men butting heads in a forgotten arena to thank.

Best of Enemies is out of theaters but will be available for streaming in early November.

Jake Strickler will regularly be reviewing films that are relevant to the Thunderbird environment for Das Tor. He can be reached at jake.strickler@tbird.asu.edu if you’d like to vent or go to the movies with him.

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