‘It’s as if he never existed,” a friend of a certain age (same as mine) said to me not long ago. He was referring to William F. Buckley Jr. When he died in 2008, at age 82, Buckley was eulogized as the most consequential American journalist of the second half of the last century: editor for 35 years of National Review, founding father of the conservative movement, bosom pal of Ronald Reagan, author of many bestselling books, and host of Firing Line, the longest-running single-host public affairs show in television history.
From the 1950s through the ’90s, he seemed to be everywhere all the time. Now, my friend complained, Buckley rarely comes up in public discussion, and it’s not clear that younger journalists, tweeting and Snapchatting and texting and Instagramming all the livelong day, have more than a vague notion of who he was.
I wanted to reply, “Sic transit journalism, pal,” but I would have been as wrong as my friend was. Not all hacks vanish with their work when the production line shuts down, and Buckley is one of the rare ones who, to judge by recent stirrings, is still bankable.
Earlier last month W.W. Norton published Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties, by a historian named Kevin M. Schultz, whose emphatic theme is seen in the subtitle. And July 31 will bring the New York and Los Angeles premiere of Best of Enemies, a documentary about a series of televised debates Buckley had with the novelist-gadfly Gore Vidal during the momentous political conventions of 1968.
The thesis of the filmmakers, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, is that Buckley’s appearances with Vidal that summer “changed TV forever.” If you believe that you’ll believe anything—even that Buckley and Norman Mailer shaped the sixties with their difficult friendship. But authors and moviemakers can’t move units any longer without wild overstatement. And it’s interesting to ponder why Buckley among all his contemporaries should be chosen for the grandiose claims that Schultz, Neville, and Gordon make on his behalf.
There was lots of news in 1968—a year of race riots and political assassinations, occurring against the backdrop of a bloody war. As the party conventions approached, it was assumed the news divisions of the three networks would continue their quadrennial custom of gavel-to-gavel coverage, bumping from the afternoon and evening hours all the regularly scheduled and highly profitable soap operas and sitcoms. Whether this quaint custom was undertaken from a sense of civic obligation or just because the network’s executives and journalists liked to attend jolly political events is a question that has never been answered.
In any case, ABC, always the ratings loser in news and other programming, saw an opening. It announced before the conventions began that it would condense its coverage to one and a half hours a night—grossly irresponsible by the high-minded standards of the day and, by the standards of ours, unimaginably Homeric. But it made good money sense. While other nets would be boring viewers with roll call votes and platform planks, normal Americans could seek refuge at ABC, thrilling to the adventures of Peyton Place and The Flying Nun. And when ABC’s nightly convention coverage did appear, at the very end of prime time, the network would offer analysis by Buckley and Vidal. ABC’s ratings soared.
The pleasures of Best of Enemies consist in watching the recovered video of these encounters. They are so entertaining, and handled so deftly by Neville and Gordon, that they can almost bear the ponderous weight of the movie’s thesis—the one about changing TV forever. “The seeds [were] planted for our present media landscape,” Gordon has written, “when the spectacle trumps the content of [the] argument.”
It’s arguable, but unprovable, that ABC’s success in whittling down its coverage to the bare minimum, and replacing a comprehensive report on the convention’s progress with left-versus-right gasbaggery, sent a signal that other networks couldn’t ignore. Nowadays, nearly 50 years later, any network news division would be lucky to get even an hour of primetime during a national convention. But the disintegration of TV political journalism—from jowly old Walter Cronkite to sputtering Sean Hannity—has been an inevitable consequence of technology and economics. Even if ABC avoided the gasbaggery in 1968, we would still bear the burden of MSNBC and Fox today.