'Best of Enemies': The Roots of the Cable-News Shoutfest

New doc revisits the explosive Vidal-Buckley '68 debates that changed TV

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 elections. Credit: ABC/Getty

In one corner sat Gore Vidal, author and liberal bon vivant; in the other was William F. Buckley Jr., talk-show host, conservative blowhard and founder of the far-right publication National Review. It was 1968, and ABC News, desperate for ratings, had decided to throw a hail-Mary pass by inviting the duo to debate the two presidential conventions over 10 nights. The network was hoping for some fireworks — and got them. By the time Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley threatened to sock his "queer" opponent in the face on live TV, ABC realized it had struck gold.

That infamous moment is the centerpiece of Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's documentary on the broadcast-news experiment that suggests this clash of celebrity-intellectual titans gave birth to the partisan shouting matches that dominate today's political punditry. Both filmmakers remember reading about that particularly vitriolic exchange long after the fact, even if they knew little else about the debates as a whole. It wasn't until Gordon was slipped a bootleg DVD of the entire 10-night run from a friend in 2010 that he realized just how prescient these verbal spats were. "As soon as I was about two-and-a-half minutes into the first one, I thought, 'My God, it's like they saw the future,' " he says. "They saw the culture wars we're living through now and battled them then."

Gordon then contacted his colleague Neville, the Oscar-winning director behind 2013's backup-singer doc 20 Feet From Stardom — and a former fact-checker for Vidal — telling him, "I'm going to send you something I think you need to watch." Soon, the two were combing through ABC's archives, uncovering the behind-the-scenes stories on what had been dubbed the network's "Unconventional Convention Coverage" and drawing connections between the two's tense tête-à-têtes and our current cable-news shoutfest.

"What's interesting is that ABC set up a situation that they thought might cause some friction," Gordon claims, while his partner chimes in to finish the thought. "But they weren't expecting a conflagration," Neville continues. "I think they were worried they'd gone too far by the time the 'crytpo-Nazi' comment happened in Chicago on Night Nine. Whereas most news shows today, they can't seem to go far enough. But the ratings were high, the concept attracted attention, and here we are."

Using talking-head testimonials and brief histories of the respective participants, Best of Enemies offers a quick contextual history lesson as to how the stage had been set and why the result had caused such a furor. But it's the archival footage of the broadcasts themselves, with Buckley and Vidal trading highbrow witticisms and lowbrow insults as Miami seethes and Chicago burns, that shows how their rivalry turned into an epic battle of political-ideology one-upmanship. "I think that's why they pissed each other off," Neville says. "They both realized they were dealing with equals, regardless of who won that round. But we didn't want to pick sides. We wanted to make a film about how we argue now, because it's a much important discussion."

"The funny thing is, during the five years we were trying to make the movie, the most common comment we got was, 'Is this even relevant?'" Neville continues. "And then, after the film premiered at Sundance last January, those same folks came up to Robert and I, and said, 'Oh, wow, I'm so sorry. I can't believe how relevant this is."