“I’ll Sock You in the Goddamn Face”
A New Documentary Shows How ABC Network Desperation Helped Cement the Legacies of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.
In 1968, the struggling ABC news division hit upon a cost-effective way to compete with NBC and CBS’s exhaustive coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions: hire ideological opposites William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal for a series of televised debates. The conservative National Review founder and Firing Line host Buckley squared off against the liberal essayist/novelist/Wildean imp Vidal for a master class in tetchiness, passive-aggressiveness: in the unforgettable climax, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” and Buckley responded, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” Though hardly the height of their careers, the debates would become a significant part of the two public intellectuals’ legacies.
Best of Enemies, screening tonight and Sunday at Hot Docs, chronicles Buckley and Vidal’s real-life animosity, which continued in magazines, on television, and in the courts for years to come (Vidal, who died in 2012, signed his 2008 Buckley obit “RIP WFB – in hell”). It shows how the two men’s similarities (east coast intellectuals and canny self-promoters with an instinctive understanding of television, but who couldn’t parlay their fame into political careers) were nearly as strong as their differences. It contextualizes the debates within 1968 America – when Vietnam, race riots, police brutality, and “law and order” were the key election issues. And it shows how the broadcasts would anticipate the partisan debate format that would come to dominate cable news.
In advance of the film’s Toronto premiere, we spoke to co-director Morgan Neville (director of the Oscar-winning Twenty Feet from Stardom, who collaborated on Best of Enemies with Robert Bordon), about Vidal, Buckley, and the mark the debates left on both men.
Torontoist: I was excited to learn that you’d actually fact-checked Gore Vidal early in your career. I assume he was hard to work with?
Morgan Neville: He was horrible. [Laughs] The real story was, I got an internship at The Nation magazine right out of college in 1989, and Gore was writing essays for The Nation. They assigned me to be Gore’s fact-checker, and this is before the Internet—he was living in Ravello, Italy, and I had to fact-check these articles and call him on the phone and tell him he’d gotten very small facts wrong. And… I’d pull the phone away from my ear, and… he did not like being told he’d gotten anything wrong. Never liked being contradicted.
Do you sense this attitude increased over the years?
I don’t know if it increased. He’d had that in him forever. It’s interesting, because Buckley liked to surround himself with people he disagreed with. In his spare time, when not on TV, he lived in New York, and he and his wife Pat Buckley had a very social house. She was sort-of a famous New York society lady, had a lot of gay friends, and they had a lot of liberal friends. Buckley told somebody, “Don’t hang out with the conservatives—they’re boring. Hang out with the liberals, they’re more interesting.” I could never see Gore doing that: “Oh, I’m going to hang out with conservatives because I’ll have livelier dinner conversation.”
In a way, I think Buckley in real life was a much more tolerant person. You would never use the words “tolerant” and “Gore Vidal” in the same sentence.
Because these are two very divisive personalities, I think a lot of people coming to this movie are going to come in sympathizing with one or the other. Did you go into the project sympathizing with one in particular?
Well, I knew Gore way more, and I’d worked at The Nation, and I’m a liberal—there was all that. One thing we decided very early on was, this is not about the arguments, and who’s right and who’s wrong—it’s about how we argue. That’s the big point we wanted to make, so we didn’t want people to say, “Oh, this is a film for liberals, conservatives are going to hate it,” or vice versa. I think we tried to make it a film that people of all political persuasions could see. They can think different people did better at different times, but we wanted them to come out with a common set of questions about media, public debate, and public intellectualism.
Robert [Gordon] and I both started in journalism, and Robert’s written a lot of books, but I think we both believe in the power of media—that media can do great, positive things. We take it for granted and think of media as a kind-of neutral force when, in fact, it can be a very corrosive force.
Buckley, to me, was the revelation. I still don’t agree with Buckley at all, but he was a much more complex person than I expected. He would go and have a very vituperative conversation on Firing Line with someone, and as soon as they were done he’d say, “Oh, do you want to go and get a cocktail?” You get the sense that Buckley loved the theatre of it more. Really, I think Buckley’s first love is debate, and debate is a game. The actual ideas are less important than the sport of it.
I think I went into the movie with a certain amount of nostalgia for “the Golden Age of Public Intellectuals,” but the movie makes it clear that it’s a very short leap from the Vidal/Buckley debates and the current punditocracy. The movie is less romantic about the debates than I expected.
What’s interesting is, Buckley had a TV show for 33 years. We watched a lot of them. He and Vidal had such a TV presence, and for the most part, they were the kind of public intellectuals you’d want on TV. I think what’s interesting about these debates is, it’s not them at their finest hour; it’s them letting their hatred get the better of their intelligence. It was something that brought out the worst in them.
On the one hand, they thought the other was dangerous and completely wrong for the country. On a deeper level, because they were so evenly matched and came from such similar backgrounds, they thought the other could identify their own insecurities and expose them. I think they thought the other person could see into them a bit.
Why do you think Vidal kept watching those debates obsessively, even towards the end of his life?
Because I think he felt like he’d won. I think he felt he went in there to tear Buckley down, and he felt like he did. He felt he’d made Buckley look like a fool on national TV—that was Vidal’s takeaway. For him, that was a great accomplishment.
He seemed to have the attitude that in the “Listen, you queer…” moment, he’d revealed the real Buckley. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
He goaded Buckley endlessly, and Buckley finally lost it. By rules of debate, if you lose it, you’ve lost the debate. But just from having talked to a lot of people around Buckley, and knowing the depth of Buckley’s shame about it, I don’t think that was the real Buckley that Gore exposed. I mean, I think Buckley could have some very backwards opinions about all kinds of things, and certainly sexuality is one of them. I think Buckley was not an angry person like that—Buckley just had some very retrograde political opinions about sex and race and other things.
The “queer” part of it, I don’t think that’s what Gore cared about so much as Buckley’s anger being the thing he was happiest to expose. But I don’t think that anger was a true representation of who Buckley was. Buckley was not an angry person; Gore was actually a tremendously angry person his entire life, even more so at the end.
We interviewed Gore for the film. It was one of the first things we did. We went to his house in the Hollywood Hills, and it was about a year-and-a-half, two years before he died. Gore… I mean, he agreed to do it, because you don’t turn down sex or appearing on television, I guess. But talking about Buckley was his least favourite thing.
I would have thought that he’d want to revel in it more.
Well, it’s one thing if we’d said, “Tell us how terrible Buckley is.” But at that point, he didn’t even want to say Buckley’s name. He accused us of being “Buckeyites,” and we were just trying to say, “Well, Buckley said this, why did you react this way?” We were just trying to pick apart what happened at the debates. To him, anything other than, “You were brilliant, Buckley was a fool” was basically antagonizing to him.
That surprises me, because it’s not like Gore Vidal lived a failed life.
No, but he was deeply insecure. At the end, not only was he in chronic pain, but he got very cranky, and some people say he became “a crank.” Some of his opinions became more and more out-there.
I’m sure you’ve read that article by Christopher Hitchens, “Vidal Loco”…
Yeah. I mean, there is some sense that Gore was somebody who was always taking a contrarian point of view, and if you do that long enough, you box yourself into an intellectual corner where you end up having to hold opinions that are kind of absurd. And he held some absurd opinions by the end of his life.
There were a number of reasons we decided not to use the interview. The fact that we had Gore and not Buckley felt wrong.
How about the people close to them? Given that these were proud men, were the friends and family cooperative with you?
Everybody except for one person, who was Buckley’s son, Christopher Buckley—he wouldn’t do an interview with us. And I’m a big fan of Christopher Buckley—he’s a novelist, he wrote Thank You for Smoking and a number of other things—and we asked him three times. At the beginning, middle, and end of the production, we said, “We really want to talk to you. This is not about defending your father, it’s not even about Gore—we just want to make sure your father is a dimensional character.”
My only clue as to why he wouldn’t do it is that this was kind of a stain on his father’s legacy, and this is probably the last thing in the world that Buckley would have wanted to talk about. We probably couldn’t have made it when he was alive. Maybe we could have, but it would have been much more difficult.
Chris wrote a book about his parents called Losing Mum and Pup, and he talks about the sense of psychological relief he got from throwing the filing cabinet named “Vidal” into the garbage after his father died. I feel like for Chris Buckley, it was like, “We’re done with Vidal.”
Best of Enemies screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 (Fri, Apr 24, 7 p.m.) and at the Isabel Bader Theatre (Sun, Apr 26, 3:15 p.m.)