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Q&A: Morgan Neville, co-director of Vidal-Buckley debate documentary Best of Enemies

(photo: Video Services Corp.)

(photo: Video Services Corp.)

In 1968, two intellectual giants stepped onto an ABC studio set to begin a series of political debates. One man was author, liberal, and enfant terrible Gore Vidal. The other was commentator, staunch conservative, and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. Many expected the debates to produce some sparks, given the two men’s mutual dislike for each other and their antithetical political views. But nobody anticipated what happened during the penultimate debate.

After several thrilling evenings of trading intellectual arguments and delicious barbs, the debates reached a boiling point when Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Anger unfurled on Buckley’s face as he snarled at Vidal, calling him a “queer” and threatening, “I’ll sock you in the goddamned face.” That moment, arguably, changed political discourse on television forever, setting it on a path to become the shouting match blood sport it is today.

The Vidal–Buckley debates are the subject of the new documentary Best of Enemies, co-directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom). The film explores how Vidal and Buckley’s heated conversations mirrored the political turmoil of America at the time and how the high drama – not the ideas – the two men introduced led to the atrophy of political discourse.

Neville discusses the documentary below.

How did you come across the Vidal and Buckley debates? There was a bootleg tape floating around and Robert called me and said, “Do you want to see some debates between Gore Vidal and William Buckley?” I said, “Absolutely.” Also, a friend of his who was an English professor had screened the debates for a class, just for fun. He said all the students were transfixed and argued afterward. I found it interesting that even the raw debates were compelling enough to hold an audience. So I became interested. But I didn’t know if there was a documentary there.

What was it that led you to believe there might be? The first test was shooting a few interviews. We asked Christopher Hitchens, Frank Rich, Dick Cavett, and James Woolcott, and they all said yes right away, which was a good sign. Then, as we started talking to them, very quickly these other stories emerged. We didn’t realise what a significant marker [the debate] was. When we started talking to news people about it especially, they felt that it was America on the decline to the world of pundits we have today. The deeper we got, the more it kept getting better and better. That doesn’t always happen with documentaries.

What was it about the debates – and that famous heated moment, in particular – that made you want to dive deeper into trying to understand Vidal and Buckley? What I wanted to explore was why did they have this unique relationship. Buckley interviewed hundreds of liberals on Firing Line for decades and never had that kind of relationship with them. There was something about Vidal and Buckley that was not business as usual. It’s not just the politics and each feeling that the other represented everything going wrong with America. They had this unique psychological thing going on. They were born the same year, had both gone to New England prep schools, both had these mid-Atlantic accents and demeanours. But they had taken these polar-opposite courses in politics and philosophy. I think they thought the other could detect insecurities they had in themselves and could expose them.

Making this kind of documentary, I would imagine you learned a lot about Vidal and Buckley. Did you find yourself becoming more sympathetic to one of them? Buckley was really the revelation to me. He held a lot of horrible political opinions about race and gender and sexuality. So you can’t forgive him that. But he’s a much more complicated character than people on the left think of him as. I think Buckley’s first love was debate. It was his number one skill and passion. Ideology was just fodder for him to debate. I think he would have been as happy debating what to have for dessert as political philosophy. People told us that away from the media Buckley never talked about politics. So in a way he was playing a character. That’s something I didn’t really know. It made me like him a lot more. I mean, who would I rather have dinner with? I’d actually rather have dinner with Buckley.

Do you find yourself wishing the media would put intellectuals like Vidal and Buckley on television again to have a proper, articulate debate? I would watch. The problem with a medium like television is it doesn’t necessarily honour the more complex idea. It honours the pithy and the sparks. It’s a human nature thing that television has just perfected over time. But I think we should ask more from our media. To me this was just a great story about media and the potential of media. I hope that’s something that sinks in with the film. I don’t expect the film to change a whole lot of peoples’ minds, but how often do we get to see articulate, evenly matched people of radically different opinions actually get together and debate? What passes for debate is what we get on cable TV, which is basically one ideology or another, sometimes beating up straw men. It’s not real. So much of what media has done, and what technology has done, is allowed us to live in our own communities to the point where not only do we not hear each other, we don’t necessarily even agree on what the truth is anymore.