Debate Wars: the William Buckley-Gore Vidal Debacle Revisited

Way back, when ABC News was a distant third in a three-horse race for ratings, there were only three national broadcast television stations in 1968, and the news team truly had nothing to lose. So while CBS and NBC opted for gavel-to-gavel coverage of the presidential conventions, the suits at ABC performed a programing backflip. Their convention coverage would feature nightly analysis and commentary from two prominent intellectuals—one on the right (William F. Buckley), and one on the left (Gore Vidal).

During the course of the nightly discussions, the conventions and the candidates did occasionally come up. Mostly, however, Buckley and Vidal went after each other. The result was a blood-sport spectacle more akin to entertainment in the Roman Coliseum, but with just two mean and angry lions and no Christians.

Robert Gordon’s new documentary, The Best of Enemies, revisits the historic war of ideas between two of the age’s most powerful culture critics.

This is an engaging, enlightening and (yes) entertaining film.

The smartest move Gordon made in making the movie was not picking sides. He allows National Review editor Bill Buckley (the most well-known conservative of the day outside of Barry Goldwater) to make the case for freedom and free-markets. Meanwhile, the controversial novelist Gore Vidal gets to cheer-lead for the liberal state. Viewers can pick their ideological wing of the theater, cheer for their champion, and throw popcorn at the other side.

Beyond the serious history lesson and the hilarious histrionics, the film also offers an insightful perspective on our current times. In our mind, the word “debate” conjures up the epitome of democratic discourse.  That’s so 19th century. The Lincoln-Douglas debates—those were debates. Indeed, they were more than debates. They were conversations—a long and intricate exchange of ideas. In contrast, Buckley and Vidal are exchanging penalty shots. Like a pro-hockey game, television debates are mostly about high-scoring entertainment—not public discourse to inform and enlighten an electorate. Today’s candidate debates are the descendants of Buckley and Vidal, not Lincoln and Douglas.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong with intellectual warfare on the air. Indeed, this documentary reminds us that smart people can be as entertaining as a Kardashian.

But entertaining is not always the same as educating people on issues and options. Buckley had so much more to offer the debate of great ideas than what could be gleaned from the ABC debates. Likewise, today Americans need something better than the cable news version of Hollywood Squares. There has to be a better way to learn about the people that want to lead the country.