A surprise movie hit this summer does not feature superheroes or spies or cops. It stars two dead intellectuals, known for their prodigious literary output and their skill at oratorical combat. The Best of Enemies is a documentary about the ten debates in 1968 on ABC News between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal.
ABC News, the perennial third place ratings finisher back when there were three broadcasters, decided to gamble on a new format for covering the political conventions. Rather than providing comprehensive gavel-to-gavel coverage, the network offered just a few hours of coverage each night, followed by a debate between the two eloquent spokesmen for the Left and Right.
According to the movie poster, the Buckley-Vidal confrontation was an epochal event: “2 Men. 10 Debates. Television would never be the same.” A.O. Scott, in the New York Times, agrees:
There’s no doubt that the debates were a harbinger of cable-news shouting matches to come, as television journalism transformed itself from democracy’s buttoned-up superego into its snarling id.
Another commentator considers the debates “a turning point, the moment when the networks, the press, the pundits, and even average Americans first realized their taste for political bloodsport. A terrible beauty had been born ….”
The rhetoric evokes Alamogordo, as if the critics had just witnessed the first terribly beautiful mushroom cloud. Just what happened to justify such hyperbole? Continue reading