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'Best of Enemies' Recalls the Point When Counterpoint Became Mainstream
October 3, 2016  | By David Hinckley

I’m not sure we need to celebrate the point at which socio-political commentary on television devolved into two people shouting at each other.

But it’s worth acknowledging that moment, if only to satisfy our inner masochist, and that’s essentially what PBS’s Independent Lens does Monday at 9 p.m. ET with Best of Enemies, a documentary on the 1968 quasi-debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

Worth noting: Buckley and Vidal, (left, right, top) who agreed on virtually nothing, both expressed concern in the end that their emotionally charged exchanges had not enhanced public discourse.

In one of the final scenes of this 90-minute retrospective, Vidal suggests the debates have failed to offer the kind of analysis for which the two commentators were nominally hired.

Buckley, in one of his most prescient remarks, warned that television was trying to balance two often incompatible masters: “enlightenment and viewability.”

The Buckley-Vidal dialogue wasn’t all that extensive. It ran for 13 encounters in the summer of 1968, during the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions.

The Republicans were nominating a resurrected Richard Nixon, who had fended off a challenge from California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

The Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was struggling to unite a party ripped in half by the Vietnam war.

Buckley, the editor of the conservative National Review magazine, was the country’s best-known conservative non-politician. Devilishly handsome, Ivy League-refined and a brilliant debater, Buckley seemed to take personal delight in each “gotcha” moment. He would have preferred Reagan to Nixon, but he had no use at all for Hubert.

Vidal was one of the country’s most popular authors, thanks to a series of historical biographies and more recently the then-outrageous transgender satire Myra Breckinridge. Vidal had a sharp tongue of his own, and while the expectation was that he would generally defend Democrats, he was already feeling deep disillusionment with the whole American political system.

They were hired by ABC News, which was a distant third in the TV news game and quite frankly was groping around for anything that would get their shoestring operation a little attention.

Vidal and Buckley nominally were analyzing what was happening at the conventions and they did some of that – though we see very little of it in this documentary.

What got viewers’ attention, instead, was their clear dislike for each other and the resultant way that they often seemed more focused on beating the other guy than putting a platform plank into socio-political context.

It escaped no one’s notice at ABC and in the TV biz that heated argument was the money shot in this experiment, and while this was hardly the first time commentators with opposing views had faced off on TV or radio, this encounter more than most others seemed to switch on a light bulb in the heads of programmers.

Within a few years we got Point/Counterpoint, with James J. Kilpatrick against Nicholas Von Hoffman and later Shana Alexander. We got Crossfire and shows like The McLaughlin Group.

Then, in an interesting twist, programmers started thinking that most people who savor this kind of combative dialogue are probably rooting for one team or the other.

So why not keep the antagonistic tone, the programmers figured, and not bother with having both sides?

That fell in nicely with the kind of advocacy talk shows radio had been doing for decades going back to the likes of Father Coughlin. So today we have multiple descendants of the Buckley/Vidal debates, except they just aren’t in the same room. One side is on one network and the other side is on another network.

In both cases, we see ample confirmation that Buckley and Vidal were correct in fearing that this sort of Roman circus would usually generate more heat than light.

Perhaps they knew whereof they spoke because in these debates they were both often guilty of precisely that. In the most famous exchange, Vidal calls Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley replies by calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch him in the face.

Buckley, who wanted always to be the coolest cat in the room, was mortified that he had let himself be baited into losing it like that.

In fact, Best of Enemies details how neither Buckley nor Vidal ever quite shook the aftereffects of their unpleasant encounters.

We know the feeling.

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