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Best of Enemies – Footnotes

Dec 24, 2021 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Best of Enemies include observations on how TV brought the political conventions of 1968 and the conflicts on the streets of America and in Vietnam into people’s living rooms in full colour; how the issues of the day then still preoccupy us today; and how the bruising encounter between Buckley and Vidal haunted both men ever after.

The world in colour 
When the Republican and Democratic national conventions took place in the Summer of 1968, the audience at home in America were tuned into the events of their time in a way never seen before. First, because they were now seeing the world on their TV sets in lurid colour. In case you might think this a trivial point, the Republican party didn’t think so. Female delegates to their convention in Miami were advised in advance to consider carefully the colours of their wardrobe for the all-seeing cameras.

The ubiquitous TV coverage of the events unfolding in the streets of America, and beyond, in 1968 were brought vividly to life in a visceral way. It was impossible to escape the brutal realities of the race riots in the Southern states, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the horrors of the war in Vietnam. The graphic images of the latter beamed into America’s homes raised the intensity of the anti-war movement and earned the conflict the epithet “the living-room war”. The civil strife was certainly on show at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley had fortified the convention centre with barbed wire and over 20,000 police officers and armed National Guard. TV reporters and news journalists were actually caught up in the ensuing riots between the guards and anti-war protestors.

As Best of Enemies so dramatically demonstrates the antagonisms in the country came to be reflected in the media itself. ABC’s position as the fifth of three news networks led them to try something different in their convention broadcasting, what they playfully called their “unconventional convention coverage”. Their approach was distinctive at the time because they deliberately encouraged their presenters to offer “opinions”, not just the facts, as convention to date expected (sorry a pun too far). Of course as we look back at these historic TV skirmishes, we recognise the outline of polarised media discourse today, as newsman David Brinkley says in the play “all political discussion is now adversarial by default”. All of which reminds me that the additional voice along side the play-by-play reporter of a TV sports event came to be known as the “colour commentator”, enhancing and enlivening the story we’re being presented with.

Delegates from Florida at the 1968 Republican Convention    
Napalm in Vietnam Photo: AP    
Police clear the park during Democratic Convention in Chicago 1968, Photo: Art Shay    
Buckley and Vidal 1968

The issues of the day
The issues that Vidal and Buckley locked horns over in 1968 still seem all too familiar to us today. They reflect some of the ageless arguments of Left and Right on the political spectrum. For example, the timeless debate over the role of government in optimising economic wealth and social equality. For Vidal “the Republican Party is based almost entirely on human greed”, championing free market capitalism that “puts profit before people”. Buckley proudly defends the primacy of the principle of freedom: “Freedom breeds inequality. Unless you have freedom to be unequal, there is no such thing as freedom”. Their language is echoed in the recent rhetorical battles in America between so-called ‘socialists’ and ‘libertarians’.

Buckley labels Vidal’s protests against the war in Vietnam as unpatriotic, an attack which Vidal predicts he’ll employ in the debate: “He’ll do that classic Conservative thing of equating any criticism of this country as being in some way unpatriotic. It’s always a slam dunk for the right.” The success of Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great’ or the Brexit appeal to a bygone British supremacy suggest that patriotism remains a potent policy.

When in their Cambridge debate in 1965, Buckley attempts to paint James Baldwin as an advocate of violent racial revolution, we recognise the same vilification used by critics who labelled the Black Lives Matter protesters as ‘terrorists’.

The positions that Vidal and Buckley present in the original debates, and through most of the play, are polar extremes. In the fictional coda at the end of the play, however, the characters take a more moderate tone in expressing their arguments against the standard dogma of Left and Right. Buckley accuses Vidal of sneering at traditional conservative values: small-town America, patriotism, and faith in God. And Vidal characterises conservatism as a fear of change, “of the world altering into something that you don’t recognise, and can’t control”. Both seem to hit a nerve in these exchanges, affirming emotional truths underlying the positions they, and we, adopt.

It’s not too much to say that both men were haunted for years after by their bruising encounter in the debates. Buckley felt compelled to publish a 12,000 word article in Esquire magazine a year later attempting to defend his blowup in the final debate. Vidal replied in the same magazine with a typically provocative piece that included the vivid image of Buckley’s outburst quoted in the play of how “a little door in William F Buckley’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I’d always known was there…”.  However in that article Buckley believed that Vidal had also implied that Buckley himself harboured homosexual tendencies, and Buckley sued him and the magazine. The law suit dragged on for three years before the magazine settled out of court, Buckley claiming victory.

Article by William Buckley,
Esquire magazine 1st August 1969

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