In 1968 the fledgling ABC TV network wanted to try something different for their coverage of Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The idea was to hire two of the biggest pundits they could find and let them loose for ten consecutive nightly live political debates. “Best of Enemies” is an absorbing documentary on these TV debates between brainy heavy weights Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Each night the two well-known intellectuals weighed in on the issues of the day, which sadly have not changed: race riots, inequality, war, the rich and poor. Their attempt at intelligent debate quickly deteriorates into clever insults and deeply personal attacks. The two hated each other, and ultimately combine for an entertaining left vs right battle of pompous elocutions.
Both men were influential and well connected in their own way. Both were: socially privileged, often on TV, made the cover of TIME magazine and ran for political office. Buckley was close to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. He was a champion of the right, founder and editor of the National Review and significant contributor to Reagan becoming president. Vidal was a friend with JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, and Princess Margaret. He was a popular liberal essayist and novelist who imperiously explored morality, sexuality, power and history. It was dynamic TV for the time and the filmmakers make a strong case for this being the beginning of the publics taste for political bloodsport. There is amazing archival footage in and around the conventions, with very recognizable politicians everywhere and lots of other famous faces from the time. The live footage from the actual debates is riveting. The eloquent, confident and well-prepared Vidal was out to destroy Buckley. Buckley, with his unusual facial ticks and grandiose expressions was up for the challenge. I can recall many standup comedians doing comical impressions of Buckley. How could you not with those mannerisms and way of speaking?
The debates delivered fireworks for the network when the two traded unprecedented insults in one of the final battles. As Dick Cavett puts it: “The network nearly shat.” The film highlights an era when everyone watched TV and it was still a vital and evolving media. It was an interesting time. Ten years later New York Magazine would rate the debates as one of the greatest moments in the history of television to date.