This documentary chronicles the rise of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal – two highly esteemed public intellectuals and failed political candidates from distinct ideological poles – culminating in their televised debates during the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1968. It was at one of these debates that this happened–
There is so much that is absolutely riveting about this exchange: Buckley’s barely contained fury, Vidal’s delight at having gotten under Buckley’s skin, the erudition of the exchange, and its utter authenticity. The documentarians do an excellent job at placing these debates in the proper contexts, including the rise of Buckley as a conservative founding father and Vidal as a brilliant novelist and libertine, and the effect on these two combatants. Vidal almost fetishized the exchange, having guests view the debates at his villa in Italy in a Norma Desmond-like manner, and saying of Buckley upon his death “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.” Conversely, Buckley was horrified at his loss of control and regretted it for the rest of his life.
The documentary also chronicles how the debate changed television coverage for conventions (no longer would there be gavel-to-gavel coverage) and alludes to the debate’s impact on televised political discussion thenceforth, but, thankfully, doesn’t attempt to press home a full argument. It is enough to watch the sewer that is political commentary on FOX, MSNBC, CNN juxtaposed with the clips of Buckley and Vidal, even at their worst, to get the point. Best, the documentary utilizes individuals who were present at the debates as well as authors and commentators like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Tanenhaus and Dick Cavett, all of whom have very interesting rather than obvious observations.
The documentary is, however, a little thin. In particular, it glosses over the post-debate exchange the two men had in Esquire magazine, where Vidal cut as deep as he could, suggesting a calumny about the Buckley family that does not bear repeating here. This more so than the exchange engendered litigation, as Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire. That suit was settled, under the following terms: Esquire would publish a statement in its November issue disavowing “the most vivid statements” of the Vidal article, calling Buckley “racist, anti-black, anti-Semitic and a pro-crypto Nazi”, and the magazine paid $115,000 for Buckley’s legal expenses. Buckley said of Vidal, “Let his own unreimbursed legal expenses, estimated at $75,000, teach him to observe the laws of libel.” Interestingly, in 1995, Esquire re-published Vidal’s essay in an anthology, Buckley again sued for libel, and Esquire again settled for $55,000 in attorney’s fees and $10,000 in personal damages to Buckley.
Great time capsule piece. Available on Netflix streaming.