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Vidal vs. Buckley: The granddaddy of all TV feuds

I hate feuds.

Broadcasting loves them – Donald Trump vs. Rosie O’Donnell, Donald Trump vs. Megyn Kelly, Conan O’Brien vs. Jay Leno, whatever you can come up with. It will even settle for some obnoxious tyro bedeviling an indifferent world with his “me too!” plea in the form of an attempted feud with an established veteran.

All of this reality TV-style frick-and-frack hostility is the meat and potatoes of cable TV.

If you believe Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s creditable documentary “The Best of Enemies” – in a rare weeklong booking at the Screening Room through Friday – it all started with one up-feud for TV news: Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley Jr., during the tumultuous, culture-bashing political conventions of 1968.

Everything about political conventions then was bigger and more consequential than they’d become in a later omni-TV world: the conventions were more significant, so were the network TV news people covering them and so were the ratings.

Except at third-rated ABC, which cleverly decided to battle its own habitual mediocrity and inconsequence and wretched reputation by having two of the era’s most literate certified public intellectuals – Buckley and Vidal – “debate” the issues every night.

What America watched was an authentic public feud between two men that, as Christopher Hitchens says in the film, genuinely loathed each other. It was, in retrospect, sickening.

And pivotal – not to mention riveting, then and now.

Vidal was a chortling master of TV’s version of literary feuding. Of his two most public feuds with writers, I much prefer the one from 1971 that began with Norman Mailer on a Dick Cavett Show when Mailer demanded Vidal’s apology for lumping his brand of sexism in his book “The Prisoner of Sex” with Charles Manson’s. (Vidal had done that in a review of Mailer’s book.)

The result of that one was a hideous moment where Mailer wound up challenging the studio audience – indeed all possible audiences of any sort – as well as Vidal, Cavett and Janet Flanner, a bystander on the show until she wound up as the prevailing doyenne on Vidal’s side.

No one back then was better than Vidal at turning men who should have known better into hyper-articulate versions of angry, chattering chimpanzees.

Vidal, quite consciously, touched the wrong button in Buckley’s intellectual defense system on that night. He called him a “crypto-Nazi,” a Baroque variation on the one thing arch-conservative Buckley most deplored in the arsenal of liberal invective. To him, the N-word was “Nazi.”

Buckley truly and immortally lost it.

In a moment reported verbatim almost everywhere at the time – and ever since – Buckley said “Listen you queer, I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

The expression on Buckley’s face – repeated in the film in slo-mo – was contorted with some of the most naked hatred ever captured in a studio by a TV news camera.

To Vidal’s later characteristic chortling and public satisfaction, he’d made the “cuckoo” sing its song.

It is to the enormous credit of the documentary filmmakers of “The Best of Enemies” that they understood how wretchedly that moment may have affected Buckley for the remainder of his long life.

What quickly ensued from him was a 12,000-word piece for Esquire about “experiencing Gore Vidal,” and then Vidal’s subsequent snarky riposte in Esquire that suggested that Buckley’s habitually flamboyant effeteness made him a classic closet case.

Lawyers were called in. Eventually, it seems, money flowed in Buckley’s direction when Esquire got sick of the whole matter and coughed up some dough to make it all go away.

As scrupulous as “The Best of Enemies” is about presenting a real and very human William F. Buckley Jr. rather than the arrogant, lizard-tongued right-wing demagogue usually pictured, it still doesn’t get him exactly right. But then Buckley is liable to remain hard to get right until the last syllable of recorded time.

In giving the right wing its most notable and visible public intellectual (when such creatures were possible), he also tried his best to cleanse it of John Birch nut jobs and rabid racists and anti-Semites. His biographer, Sam Tanenhaus – a former New York Times Book Review editor – calls Buckley in the film “the great debater of his time” while Vidal was “the great talker of his time.”

Debate didn’t stand a chance.

Most important now, I think, is the now-obscure fact that Buckley was a truly great editor. He liked good and smart writers no matter their politics and was, for instance, happy to give the world Joan Didion, Renata Adler, Garry Wills and John Leonard. On his TV show “Firing Line,” brilliant liberal commentator Jeff Greenfield played Buckley’s resident legal guru.

Both Mailer and Buckley were Ivy Leaguers, soaked in privilege. Somewhere within, they were raised to be “gentlemen.” Buckley, famously, was from a large wealthy family and was sent to Yale. Mailer was a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who turned into a 16-year-old Harvard smarty-pants who kept a bottle of gin on his mantle piece because he’d heard gin is what Hemingway liked to drink.

Vidal never went to college and was proud of it. He went to war instead (though neither he nor Mailer knew a fraction as much of its horror firsthand, it seems, as J.D. Salinger did).

He came from money but also, more significantly, the worlds of media fame and politics. Vidal, like Buckley, was an aristocrat. But he was no gentleman.

As a gay man whose novel “The City and the Pillar” may never be sufficiently appreciated for the ground-breaking thing it was in American literature, Vidal was a true radical by nature with no interest in soothing the status quo.

Mailer, ad nauseum, used to compare himself to a “club fighter.” He and Buckley might be seen now as like university-trained boxers, trying to outpoint Vidal scientifically and land blows that would knock him off his feet.

Vidal, was like an early UFC cage fighter, happy to use any weapon or martial art at his disposal. He was particularly adept at public “debate” martial art wherein he could use his opponent’s very size and strength against him.

To fight Norman Mailer on the “Dick Cavett Show,” all Vidal had to do was sit back in evident enjoyment of the show, keep on chortling and let Mailer knock himself down while the audience declared him out after a humiliating mandatory eight count.

In the Vidal-Mailer feud, their real set-to happened off-camera at a party where Mailer head-butted Vidal and, he says, bounced a heavy-bottomed old-fashioned glass off his forehead.

Read Mailer’s letters and you’ll find an aging Harvard boy’s late-life friendly overtures toward his old nemesis Vidal. They’d been friends once. Mailer wanted the friendship – or some remainder of it – back before checkout time.

Vidal and Buckley were never friends.

“The Best of Enemies” is worth seeing for its most haunting moment, when Buckley – as loquacious and articulate a human being as the gods ever deposited on this mortal coil – is asked about that terrible moment with Vidal when he lost it on television as few people ever have.

Buckley has nothing to say in response to the question. Absolutely nothing.

Silence has seldom been so eloquent.

The world’s response to its glimpse of an actual feud on a TV screen has been broadcasting’s many decades of simulating such “feuds” in reality TV – something which, as sickeningly as Buckley and Vidal no doubt came to know, has no “reality” at all.


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