Thursday 22 February 2018

Vidal Vs Buckley: television's nastiest feud

Tension: Vidal (right) and Buckley during one of their heated stuio debates
Tension: Vidal (right) and Buckley during one of their heated stuio debates

In the summer of 1968, American TV channel ABC watched the approach of the Republican Party's National Convention with dread. At that point they were the whipping boy of the 'big three' US television stations, lagging miserably behind rivals NBC and CBS in the ratings.

It was an election year, so the convention would have to be broadcast, but ABC programmers worried that their cheap sets and shoestring budgets would make their coverage look amateurish, and ridiculous.

So they hit on the novel idea of saving money by airing studio debates between two ideologically opposed pundits. They choose Gore Vidal and William F Buckley, and boy did they get their casting right, as wonderful new documentary Best of Enemies explains.

Currently showing at the Irish Film Institute, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's painstaking and hugely entertaining film sets the scene for what would prove to be the nastiest feud in television history, a vitriolic spat that rumbled on for 40-odd years and changed the way that TV approached interviews and punditry forever.

Like most brilliant ideas, the Vidal/Buckley debates owed a lot to chance. Initiated as a money-saving filler, the nightly talks would be moderated by affable journalist Howard K Smith, though as it turned out a boxing referee might have been more appropriate. William F Buckley was the pundit they approached first: champion of the American right and founder of the increasingly influential National Review magazine, he was perhaps the most brilliant debater of his age.

When asked about possible opponents, Buckley instead named Gore Vidal as the man he'd least like to share a set with: a wise producer smiled slyly and decided to put them together.

Eugene Gore Vidal was in every way Buckley's antithesis. Son of a dashing aviation pioneer, grandson of a senator, Vidal had burst on to the literary scene at the tender age of 19 with his acclaimed first novel, Williwaw. His subsequent books caused uproar because of their frank depictions of homosexual encounters.

He had worked in Hollywood (Sodom incarnate, from Mr Buckley's point of view), was a staunch social liberal, a homosexual himself, and, of late, in his impeccably constructed newspaper articles and essays, had become a vocal critic of the American right and the Vietnam War. William F Buckley, on the other hand, was a buttoned-down conservative: anti-communist, fiercely patriotic, horrified by the social revolution then unfolding around him and a flag-waver for law and order and 'American values'.

They were polar opposites, "matter and anti-matter" as one contributor to Best of Enemies memorably puts it, and yet beneath the ideological posturing Vidal and Buckley had a surprising amount in common. Both looked and acted as though they'd been to the manor born, and were effortlessly articulate, classics-quoting members of that now extinct species, the American public intellectual.

Both had also cherished high political ambitions. Buckley ran unsuccessfully in New York's mayoral election in 1965, while Vidal twice failed as a Democratic candidate in races for the House of Representatives and Senate. Vidal even dreamed of one day becoming president, but both men drastically lacked the common touch.

Buckley played Bach on his harpsichord and lived in Jeffersonian splendour in Connecticut: after falling foul of Bobby Kennedy and being expelled from Camelot, Vidal had retreated to his cliff-top palazzo on the Amalfi Coast to watch, as he rather grandly put it, "the decline of Western civilisation".

Hardly your average guys in the street, then, but in debating terms they were perfectly matched, a fact Buckley was rather slow to realise. He underestimated his opponent, and on the eve of the Republican Convention, went sailing with friends off the Miami coast instead of doing his homework.

Vidal made no such mistake, and was waiting in the long grass. He despised everything Buckley stood for, and had agreed to the debates primarily to have a go at him.

If Buckley was the great debater, Gore was the great speaker, a master improviser with a flair for provoking his many enemies into making spectacles of themselves. He enjoyed a long feud with that Rambo of American letters Norman Mailer, and loved to recall the time when Mailer took a swing at him and Vidal replied, with infuriating calmness, ''lost for words again, Norman?"

The scene was set for an epic confrontation, but when the men first met on the ABC set on August 5, 1968, their initial exchanges were awkward, and tentative. In Best of Enemies, clips of their early encounters reveal palpable tension, and simmering antipathy.

Buckley, fresh off his yacht and looking preppy, saws the air with his long arms as speaks, while Vidal, in a natty suit, listens, pursing his lips as though sucking a lemon. But they avoid direct eye contact wherever possible, and trade languid intellectual barbs.

And then there are those accents - rich, plummy, hopelessly entitled mid-Atlantic drawls that can only be compared to the vocal stylings of Frasier Crane. Fittingly, Kelsey Grammer reads Buckley's letters in the film, while John Lithgow stands in for Vidal.

Their exchanges, at first, were almost polite, but all the while the animosity simmered. Vidal called Buckley "Bill" to annoy him, and derided his opponent's "rather Latinate" English, a reference to Buckley's staunch Catholicism. Buckley responded by mentioning Vidal's "feline" quality, a sly dig at Gore's sexuality. But things really kicked off when ABC's debating road-show moved on to Chicago, and the Democratic Convention.

In response to plans for anti-Vietnam protests, Chicago's controversial Mayor Richard J Daley poured 23,000 pumped-up police and National Guardsmen onto the streets, making violence inevitable. The crackdown was heavy-handed, and tear gas and baton charges left hundreds injured.

Vidal was horrified, and made his feelings plain on the CBS debates, but Buckley insisted the protesters had been shouting pro-Viet Cong chants, and therefore asking for it. They argued bitterly over demonstrators' right to fly a Viet-Cong flag, and when Buckley described the protesters as "pro-Nazi", Vidal pounced.

"As far as I'm concerned," he purred, "the only sort of pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself."

A clearly incandescent Buckley leant out of his seat, clenching his right fist and, on live television remember, said "Now listen, you queer - stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddam face, and you'll stay plastered."

Moderator Howard K Smith quickly intervened to calm things down, but the damage had been done. And while Vidal seemed as shocked as anyone by Buckley's tirade, he was soon smiling quietly to himself, the cat that had got the cream. Because he knew he'd got the better of his opponent, and that outburst would haunt Buckley for the rest of his life.

After the debates they were, to the best of my knowledge, never in the same room again, but the row didn't stop there. In 1969, Buckley wrote a slyly vitriolic piece for Esquire magazine in which he portrayed Vidal as a proselytising homosexual.

Needless to say, Gore responded, with a withering piece also published by Esquire which described Buckley as "anti-black", "anti-Semitic" and a "warmonger". Buckley sued for libel, lost his case, then sued again: Vidal counter-sued, and the court case rumbled on for years.

Though the debates provided ABC with an unlikely ratings hit, neither Buckley nor Vidal emerged from their encounter with very much credit. But there was no doubt about the winner, and while Buckley hated his on-air tirade even being mentioned, Vidal used to stage late-night screenings of the spat for friends. Buckley went on to become a key advisor during the Reagan administration, while Vidal vigorously continued his career as a caustic public intellectual, composing a series of brilliant essays describing, as he saw it, the collapse of American democracy.

But they never forgot or forgave one another, and when Buckley died suddenly in the spring of 2008, a New York Times reporter contacted Vidal to ask him how he felt.

"I thought," he said, "hell is bound to be a livelier place...'

Vidal in  Hollywood

Gore Vidal was an incredibly prolific writer, and aside from dashing off 30-odd novels, a handful of plays and hundreds of essays during his long career, he found time to dabble in cinema as well.

In 1956, the 31-year-old Vidal was hired as a screenwriter by MGM, and began working on films with a literary flavour like The Catered Affair (1956) and I Accuse! (1958). But his most famous movie job came in 1958, when William Wyler seconded Vidal to rewrite parts of the script for Ben-Hur.

Exactly how much Vidal contributed to the final script has always been a bone of contention: he claimed he wrote quite a lot of it, and later outraged Charlton Heston and others by suggesting that Judah Ben-Hur's relationship with Messala (Stephen Boyd) was implicitly homosexual, and that everyone except Heston was aware of this. Though he would never be credited, Gore certainly did contribute significantly to Ben-Hur's script, and he returned to the Roman theme in the late 1970s, writing a screenplay based on the scandalous life of the Emperor Caligula. But when the producers turned Caligula (1979) into an absurd soft-porn mess, Vidal wisely asked that his name be removed from the credits.

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