Robert Gordon had heard of the fabled 1968 live debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that ABC staged during the political conventions of that year in order to grab some much-needed ratings. It wasn’t until he saw a bootleg copy of them, though, that he decided that this was a story that needed to be told. When I spoke with him on April 24, 2015, he said it was like seeing the future of public discourse play out on the screen for him. We went on to talk about how the media landscape changed when the ratings ploy worked, as well as how the debates, which turned viciously personal, affected both intellectual heavyweights. In many ways, neither of them quite recovered.
Without asking Gordon’s personal political leanings, I asked him about the finesse he used in making THE BEST OF ENEMIES without taking political sides in order to respect both gentlemen, and their legion of fans, who are still passionate about them years after they have passed on.
His hope, which he concedes is perhaps naïve, is that a reminder of what a truly intellectual debate can be – smart as well as entertaining when practiced by people of intelligence and wit – might have an effect on the current cultural landscape.
I hope it works.
We went on to talk about some of the surprising ideas that were thrown around for casting the right voices to read each man’s writings, the simpler time that was 1960s television, when he knew he had a documentary that would work, and what it was like for Gordon when he met Vidal in person.
THE BEST OF ENEMIES is a scintillating, scathing documentary about the history and ramifications of the 1968 ABC television debates between two of the leading intellectual lights of their day, arch-Conservative William F. Buckley and cultural gadfly and dedicated progressive, Gore Vidal. ABC was then a struggling network who took a shot at garnering viewers by pairing Buckley, editor of the National Review, and Vidal, a novelist, playwright, and essayist who confronted issues others wouldn’t touch, to comment on both the Democratic and Republican conventions of that year, comments that turned out to be less about what had happened during the conventions than about their antipathy for one another, personally and politically. It culminated in heated exchange from which neither party ever quite recovered, and which brought ABC the numbers for which it had been aiming. What no one could have known at the time was that the paradigm of arguing over the airwaves, instead of formally debating, would eventually change the landscape of news coverage in America, creating the now ubiquitous phenomenon of television pundits, while also coarsening the nature of the arguments from literate, considered points to shouting matches that leave less room for substance, than for partisan ideology. Gordon co-directed and co-wrote the film with Morgan Neville. He is a Grammy-winner, and his previous work includes JOHNNY CASH’S AMERICA, RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STAX RECORDS STORY, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement’s Home Movies, and MUDDY WATERS: CAN’T BE SATISFIED.