The new documentary Best of Enemies commits a mortal sin fatal to the integrity of its interesting subject matter: It treats William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal as intellectual equals, and therewith perfect synecdoches of conservatism and liberalism. But at the cost of too high a compliment to the one, it might be observed that if Buckley were a Burke, Vidal was a very poor Paine.
Of course, my view is suspect. After all, I work at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and think highly of Buckley’s publication, National Review. So how to adjudicate? Well, we might turn to Best of Enemies, a film that promises to describe how a “new era in public discourse was born,” but then we would be disappointed. The documentary, riveting if only because of the vitriol on display, not only fails to present the ideas of the antagonists in any substantive manner, but does not care to trace its more interesting claim that the men birthed a “new era in public discourse.”
(Andrew Ferguson wrote a wonderful piece on this film in this magazine that thankfully frees me from the necessity of providing much in the way of background, but is limiting because he said it all much better than I could hope.) So here are two observations:
First, the selections of the 1968 convention debates (ten total) between Buckley and Vidal were chosen, we must assume, by the filmmakers to entertain, not enlighten. We are treated to all the verbal stilettos-in-the-side—and in this respect, Vidal was Buckley’s equal, albeit with a more vulgar flare—giving the film a rolling effect that does not abate even after the supposed high-water mark of rhetorical flourish occurs. For viewers who may have been interested in what else the men said, there is nothing for you here. Snippets are what we get from each debate, and so a snippet understanding of each man is the best that’s available. At the end of the film, one is left with the impression that there was no more to each man than a handful of well-placed barbs, and consequently, that the two men were perfect analogues to the punditry on display today. Not only is this too bad because it is not true, but the viewer is robbed of hearing, and thus being able to put in context, the political and social problems of the late 1960s.
The second observation flows from the first. Without properly delineating how Buckley and Vidal were understood, and actually served, as voices of the right and left par excellence, it is hard to accept that this debate, over and above subsequent debates, televised or otherwise, were the model from which the future took its mold. A more interesting documentary might have traced our disputatious political culture—Lincoln-Douglas!—using the Buckley-Vidal rounds as one stop on the way to the present day. Instead, Best of Enemies reflects, like the polemical arguments we are used to watching, something superficial that inhabits all our souls: a desire to be entertained, rather than educated.