In the summer of '68, as the Democratic and Republican conventions drew near, ABC News officials wondered how they might boost their sorry ratings. The event they conceived was risky: Over the course of the conventions, two of the most respected public intellectuals of the time, cool-as-a-cuke conservative commentator and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. and dryly erudite novelist and essayist Gore Vidal, would meet for a series of ten nightly debates. Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's sharp little documentary Best of Enemies details how that came together, and what happened after the fur flew.
Vidal and Buckley hated each other long before ABC brought them into this figurative boxing ring, but the clips collected by Neville and Gordon reveal something feral about these two extravagantly articulate, upper-crusty men; they eye one another like suspicious forest animals, each smelling something foul in the other. What they say in these debates isn't nearly as interesting as how they say it. They touch on issues like civil rights and the impending ascendance of Ronald Reagan, but mostly they just draw loops of invective around each other. Buckley's lower lip curls in distaste whenever he mentions Vidal's potboiler novel Myra Breckinridge, which he does often. Vidal has his slingshot loaded with his own bons mots, at one point calling Buckley "the Marie Antoinette of the right." It's fascinating. It's horrible. It's fascinatingly horrible. It's also, as Gladstone points out, a sterling example of the power that television, when it was still a "public square," could have.