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When high-minded politicos Buckley and Vidal took the low road

The new documentary "Best of Enemies" pinpoints a key moment in broadcasting: a series of debates during the 1968 political conventions between two intellectual giants. William F. Buckley on the right and Gore Vidal on the left attracted a high national audience with intelligence and wit, as well as putdowns and insults. Filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon join Jeffrey Brown.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to political commentary still steeped in intellect, but far less civil than Shields and Brooks.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • MAN:

    To help us extract meaning from these conventions, two of America's most eloquent commentators, William Buckley and Gore Vidal.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Hard to imagine now, a time before political pundits dominated cable and broadcast news programs.

    The documentary "Best of Enemies" pinpoints a key moment of change, when two intellectual giants William F. Buckley on the right, Gore Vidal on the left, attracted a huge national audience with intelligence and wit, but also put-downs and insults.

    Filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon explored a series of debates the two held during the 1968 political conventions that, for a variety of reasons, would alter the future of political discourse on television.

    We spoke recently at the AFI Docs Festival in Washington.

    You set this up as both a personal and a kind of national epic. Why do you think it rose to that level?

    MORGAN NEVILLE, Director, "Best of Enemies": Gore Vidal and William Buckley represented the polar opposites of the left and the right at a time when America was kind of coming apart at the seams a little bit. This is 1968. There's rioting in the streets. And they're representing those poles there on national TV.

    But what I think what makes it such a dramatic story for us is that it was deeply personal. It was under the veneer of politics, but I think they saw in the other person somebody who could detect their own insecurities and expose those to the world.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You follow 10 debates, right? It's like a heavyweight — a heavyweight fight, right? You even have round one, round two, debate one, two, three.

    What happened? What did you see happening over the course of the fight, so to speak?

    ROBERT GORDON, Director, "Best of Enemies": It was an ever-growing attack. We saw in the raw footage within like two minutes of the first debate. They — these high-minded guys take the low road. It becomes very personal.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right away.

  • ROBERT GORDON:

    Right away.

    This big blowup was inevitable, although it's like a slow fuse. And you don't get that now. You don't get that kind of time on TV now to have a slow burn like that. Now you — now it's like, we're back, and here's the fireworks.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Over the course of 10 debates, that slow burn morphed into a bitter rivalry that was broadcast to millions.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    There were so many nuggets we found. And one of my favorite things was going through Gore's papers at Harvard and finding the papers he had on his lap with him during the debates, which included pages of scripted insults that he had…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really, scripted insults?

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    Scripted insults.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But he came to — he came to play, so to speak.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    He was there with a game plan, and that was the evidence right there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. And then, of course, it does lead up to this culminating, the most famous moment, where he does get under Buckley's skin. He calls him a crypto-Nazi. Buckley comes back at him with calling him a queer and threatens to punch him in the mouth.

  • WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.:

    Now, listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock in your goddamn face, and you will stay plastered.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    It was one of those defining moments in television. Of course, there's rioting in the streets and people are paying attention to that, but most of America is taking this in on television.

    And the television audience that night was huge. And this is before YouTube, before people could go back and analyze it. It happened, and then it vanished.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You're making the case that television news, television political discourse was never the same. The two men were actually never the same. Right? They never quite got over this.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    And it was something that I think they were regularly asked about for the rest of their lives. It was something that not only did they have this blowup on television. They wrote long pieces in "Esquire" magazine the next year debating, re-debating this. And then they sued each other over those pieces for three years.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why do you think they couldn't let it go, personally?

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    I think Buckley was the one who couldn't let it go. I think Gore would have just bragged about it at dinner parties the rest of his life, and that would have been it. I think Buckley really felt like he had to answer to himself for something that had happened.

    For Buckley, it was trying to explain why he lost his cool, when he was the king of not losing his cool.

  • ROBERT GORDON:

    So uncharacteristically lost his cool, because that's what it was. It was unlike any other moment in his career.

    And I think that, by showing that he couldn't let it go, Gore realized that he could continue to enjoy that moment of victory by bringing it up at every opportunity he was given.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The spark between the two heavyweights was a hit with television audiences and a boon for ABC, desperate to stand out from its competitors.

    Sensing a good thing, executives there decided that, instead of covering the conventions in full, they could punctuate the coverage with Vidal and Buckley's political and sometimes personal commentary.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    ABC couldn't afford to do gavel-to-gavel coverage at the conventions, as networks had traditionally had done. And so they came up with what they called unconventional convention coverage, which was a kind of distillation of the conventions' news with these commentary segments every night, these debates between Vidal and Buckley.

  • ROBERT GORDON:

    Ridiculed by the other networks.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    And in the aftermath of this, even with the big blowup between Vidal and Buckley and the ratings it got, no network ever again did gavel-to-gavel coverage again, and so it really did establish a new template.

  • ROBERT GORDON:

    These guys brought a command of history, of language, of politics, all these things to bear on this conversation, and it produced this massive forest fire. It just wants the flash paper fire. It just wants the flame. It doesn't care about what's burning.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you're saying we're still living with that today?

  • ROBERT GORDON:

    That's what we — yes. Well, turn on the TV and see.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The film "Best of Enemies" can be seen in theaters nationwide.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Fascinating. And we love our Shields and Brooks.

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