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Best of Enemies is about Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., but it might as well be about the 2016 election

The pair's debating style has left the realm of political commentary and taken up residence in actual politics.

William F. Buckley Jr. shouts at Gore Vidal during the 1968 debates.
The moment that changed political debate.
ABC Photo Archives
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It was the summer of 1968, and ABC, lagging well behind its competitors — who were conducting gavel-to-gavel coverage of the major political parties’ national conventions — decided to shake things up a bit.

So they called National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. and author and provocateur Gore Vidal and asked how they'd feel about doing a series of 10 televised debates each evening during the conventions: five during the Republican National Convention in Miami, and five during its Democratic counterpart in Chicago.

Neither Buckley nor Vidal was camera-shy. Both men were already experienced in the fine art of using TV to their advantage. Buckley was host of the political talk show Firing Line. Vidal reportedly once said that there are two things you never turn down: sex and TV appearances.

So of course the two men agreed to the gig. According to the documentary Best of Enemies (airing on October 3 as part of PBS's election coverage, and streaming online October 4 through November 2), that was the point of no return for TV election coverage — even though things were on such a shoestring that the ABC set literally collapsed during the RNC.

Buckley and Vidal’s exchange changed what qualifies as televised political debate in America and electrified the country, reshaping expectations about what constitutes watchable coverage.

Famously, the whole thing ended with Vidal calling Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley threatening — on live TV! — to "sock" the "queer." ABC got what it wanted: a spot back atop the ratings heap.

And American political discourse has never really recovered.

Buckley and Vidal hated each other, but they were awfully alike

Best of Enemies premiered at Sundance in 2015, almost eight months before the primary debates that kicked off our long national election nightmare. Back then, it felt cautionary and unsettling. Now, with just over a month until the election, it plays like some cross between a villain's origin story and a horror film.

Buckley and Vidal look at the camera.
Buckley and Vidal between takes.
ABC Photo Archives

Both Vidal and Buckley passed away in the past decade, but directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville make you feel like you know them anyway, combining interviews with the people who knew them and wrote about them with footage of the debates, the conventions, and the protests at the DNC in Chicago. Both men wrote long essays in Esquire after the incident, excerpts of which are read by John Lithgow (for Vidal) and Kelsey Grammer (for Buckley). It's effective and engaging, education as real-life political thriller.

It's also strange to see the commonalities between the enemies. For instance: Both affect a patrician debate style, smiling spitefully and painfully into the camera while being attacked by the other. It's the forerunner of the Trump smirk, though you can detect traces of the Clinton shrug as well.

Both speak with the kind of midcentury mid-Atlantic accents that would get you slapped across the face today. (Howard K. Smith, who moderated the debates with increasingly visible nervousness, proclaimed that they were an opportunity to "demonstrate how the English language ought to be used by two gentlemen, our guest commentators.")

They're both, obviously, white men, and though Vidal was proud of not going to college and Buckley's brother protests on camera that "we are savages, my family," it’s hard to believe them as anything but elitists: Vidal was related to Jackie Kennedy by marriage and was a frequent visitor to the White House before he famously sparred with Bobby Kennedy, and Buckley was hardly some guttersnipe. Both ran for public office — Buckley for mayor of New York City in 1965, Vidal for Congress in 1960. They were public intellectuals. They hobnobbed with the big guys. They were hardly oppressed or silenced.

Buckley and Vidal on set.
Buckley and Vidal on set.
ABC Photo Archives

Some elements of the interchange feel very familiar, too. Buckley apparently barely prepared for the RNC debates, electing instead to go on a yachting trip the week before he was due on camera. Vidal, on the other hand, carefully prepared, rehearsing some of his zingers — he called Buckley the "Marie Antoinette of the right wing" on air — so that he could deliver them with a practiced smile.

1968 sounds a lot like 2016

In Best of Enemies, John McWhorter points out that the 1968 conventions are where you can see start of the rhetoric of "law and order" (which Donald Trump, who's made it the centerpiece of his campaign, used no fewer than eight times in the September 26 debate) used to disguise "strategies of dividing the country racially."

And then, lest you doubt it, we get clips: Nixon saying, "Let's make America first again in respect for order and justice under law"; a clip of pre-politics Reagan in a 1953 movie improbably titled Law and Order, in a cowboy hat and boots, saying to the townsfolk, "You wanted law and order in this town — you've got it. ... The next one gets a load of buckshot. Any takers?"

There's Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen at the RNC, declaring that "never has obedience to law been so disdained," and asking to roars of approval, "Must we avoid our great cities by night, as if they were guerrilla infested hamlets out in Vietnam?" And, not to be outdone, there's Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley himself, declaring that as long as he's mayor there will be law and order in the city.

But Best of Enemies is most startling when you realize its implications. It's not a movie about the widened divide between left and right. Rather, it's interested in how media coverage affects political debates.

When Buckley and Vidal faced off on national television, the film argues, the spectacle — that word is important — was shocking, not because of their views on policy, but because instead of talking about policy at all, they went at each other's throats, the veneer of civility so thin as to be utterly transparent.

Gore Vidal looks at William F. Buckley Jr.
Vidal gives the side eye during the debate.
ABC Archival Photo

Forget party platforms; these two seem to have invented ad hominem debating. "If you see debate as a blood sport," Buckley’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus points out, "then really are bets are off. You have one objective, and that’s to win in that moment." It’s a shift from policy to lifestyle: The question here isn't which party has the best ideas but who has the better person.

The goal is to "expose" the other — Buckley, or Vidal, and by proxy their entire fan base — for whatever their opposition thinks they are.

Ad hominem attacks: They’re not just for commentators anymore

So if they didn’t invent it, Buckley and Vidal certainly popularized a type of punditry based on taking down the other person, exposing him for what he is. A clip from Saturday Night Live's infamous "Jane, you ignorant slut" sketch and another of Jon Stewart losing it on Crossfire with Tucker Carlson help underline the point: "Debate" shifted from a highly mannered way of sorting out ideas in public for the benefit of the listeners to a blood sport, with the participants’ legitimacy as human beings up for grabs.

Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on the set of Saturday Night Live's "Point / Counterpoint" sketch.
Jane, you ignorant slut.

What Best of Enemies doesn’t point out — though it probably should have — is that its focus is on a pair of commentators, two people who are not running for office at all. And yet that ad hominem parry has moved well beyond the realm of mere commentary. It’s now in the debates between the candidates themselves. (Consider how Donald Trump is loudly not talking about his opponent’s husband’s misdeeds, or the Clinton ads that accuse Trump — using his own words — not so much of bad gender policy but of gross misogyny. Or the looming issue of temperament raised during the first presidential debate.)

Comments and serious concerns about the actual person running for office are, of course, not just fair game but in some cases actually necessary. But that this is what people expect to see suggests something important: If ABC, Vidal, and Buckley helped invent a template for ratings-boosting political commentary, the public appetite this spawned and fed has eventually shaped politics itself.

Those frustrated with the lack of substantial debate in this year’s presidential election cycle would do well to revisit 1968.

Clip from Best of Enemies, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon.

A previous version of this article stated that the film was streaming on Netflix; it has been modified for accuracy.