It had all the makings of a heavyweight showdown: Two titans, luminaries in their fields with huge followings, squaring off for 10 rounds, fighting tooth and nail for the crown. Not boxers — they were political pundits. Instead of gloves, they used words. And instead of shaking hands after a well-fought battle, their mutual hatred continued until their deaths more than 40 years later.
The combatants — William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal — represented opposing ways of life, averse cultures, contrary points of view, which is why fledgling ABC News hired them to debate one another during the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the summer of 1968. While the ratings-leading CBS and NBC presented the conventions in full, ABC offered snippets of the conventions and the Buckley/Vidal debates. In doing so and finding great success, ABC created the “talking head” punditry that’s pervasive in television news programming today.
Buckley was a Republican — monotone, droll, intellectual and razor-sharp, editor of the National Review magazine and forerunner of cultural conservatism as we know it today. He felt Vidal represented everything that was wrong with the United States, and didn’t hide his disdain for his counterpart. In contrast, Vidal was a Democrat, a cousin of Jackie Onassis, more animated, a novelist, thinker, and brilliant wordsmith who felt the intellectual with the Boston Brahmin accent was anti-Democratic, and feared if he didn’t take Buckley down, Buckley’s ideas would ruin the country. Buckley and Vidal didn’t just dislike one another; they passionately despised the other and everything he stood for. Note how Vidal’s approach in the debates was to attack Buckley the man, not conservatives in general. Vidal felt if he could take down the man, the movement would follow.
What’s interesting in watching pieces of each debate is that Buckley and Vidal rarely offer worthwhile insight into the issues at hand. Instead, they far too often interrupt, provoke and jab at one another without mercy, which makes it a personal pissing match rather than the high-minded discussion of sociopolitical issues ABC envisioned.
For perspective, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville include commentary from Dick Cavett, author Christopher Hitchens, editor Matt Tyrnauer, and more, and they employ John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer to read selections from the writings of Vidal and Buckley, respectively. Further background into when Buckley and Vidal’s paths crossed prior to the debate, how they prepared, and the years of dissension that followed the debates paint this rivalry as one of the most passionate and deep-seated in recent memory. To their credit, Gordon and Neville avoid political commentary by not taking sides with either combatant, choosing to focus on the fight itself rather than the issues at hand. This was a smart move, as our own previously held political allegiances will likely present an inherent bias that will prompt us to pull for one man over the other.
Who won the debates? That’s debatable, though one man clearly stoops to a lower level than the other. One could argue that Buckley won because Nixon was ultimately elected in ’68, defeating the sitting vice president and Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. In truth, the only clear winner was ABC and TV news, which discovered a new and popular format that continues to evolve.