William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in a heated confrontation during their 1968 debates.
Recent GOP and Democratic primary debates have drawn record numbers of viewers, though perhaps as much for the prospect of watching Donald Trump insult his rivals or enjoying Bernie Sanders' fiery style as for more conventional discussion of candidate and party platforms. One could also debate whether these events have devolved into reality TV entertainment, useful mostly for producing gaffes and zingers. Anyone wondering if TV debates were ever better or different might enjoy Best of Enemies, screening in the New Orleans Film Festival and examining the legendary televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal writer Gore Vidal during the 1968 GOP and Democratic conventions.
The documentary offers a glimpse not of two candidates (though both men had run for public office) but of ideologically opposed heavyweights engaging each other over the Vietnam War, civil rights, then California governor Ronald Reagan and other topics. It's entertaining, especially because the battle became personal, but it's also a timely reflection on a pivotal election that did much to shape current identity politics.
In 1968, ABC was a dismal TV network, and in the film, critic Frank Rich recounts a joke from the era: critics said the best way to end the Vietnam War would be to broadcast it on ABC and wait until it was cancelled.
ABC was unable to broadcast the conventions from "gavel to gavel" like CBS and NBC, so instead, it offered limited convention coverage (90 minutes per night) and aired a series of debates it arranged between National Review founder Buckley and novelist Vidal (Myra Breckinridge). Both men had shrewd insights into the nation’s politics and radically different ideas about the role of government. Vidal challenged Buckley to explain how a “party of greed” would attract voters, and Buckley responded with the GOP's phrase of the times, “law and order,” which to many was code for addressing urban rioting and violence. Buckley championed Ronald Reagan’s vision for Republicans, and there’s a snippet of the two men swimming in the ocean together.
The conventions were memorable, particularly the Democrats' event in Chicago and the demonstrations and violence that happened around it. But national audiences watched the debates as the heat escalated between Vidal and Buckley, culminating in a moment that haunted one of them for decades.
The film also features commentary by a host of media and political writers.
It screens at Chalmette Movies at 5 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19 and 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22.