Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday August 2nd, 2015

A new a documentary movie called “The Best of Enemies,” opened this week. It focuses on the debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal which ran on ABC News each night of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968.

Michael Grynbaum wrote recently in the New York Times, “literary aristocrats and ideological foes, Vidal and Buckley attracted millions of viewers to the spectacle of two brilliant minds slugging it out - once almost literally- on live television. It was witty, erudite and ultimately vicious.” Grynbaum went on to write that the film “makes the case that their on-screen feuding opened the floodgates for today’s opinionated, conflict driven coverage.” 

I am not in the movie. Neither was I mentioned, nor should I have been. But I was present and involved at the creation of this event.

In April of 1968 I became ABC News Mediterranean Bureau Chief, based in Rome. Shortly thereafter, Elmer Lower, the president of ABC News and a senior network business executive arrived in Rome on a hush, hush visit. They had come to talk with Gore Vidal - at the time one of America’s most famous writers and public intellectuals. Their goal was to get him to agree to appear with the equally well known and controversial conservative commentator William F. Buckley on ABC News’ coverage of the political conventions of that summer. He said yes.

As the network’s representative in Rome I was to be the de-facto liaison between Vidal and ABC News. I was involved in the discussions of what was expected in these debates. Vidal and Buckley were to be given fifteen uninterrupted minutes each night for ten nights. There was no master plan. Gore should be Gore and Bill should be Bill. Vidal also agreed to doing occasional commentaries for the ABC Evening News in the weeks leading up to the conventions. I was to be his producer and (gulp) editor.

Not everyone these days will know a lot about Gore Vidal. In 1968 neither did I. So I embarked on a crash course on his then notable writings:

-      "The City and the Pillar", his frank 1947 novel about a male homosexual relationship which had him banned from the pages of the New York Times.

-     "Julian", a historical novel about the fourth century Roman Emperor known as Julian the Apostate, who restored paganism to the Empire to counter Christianity’s growing power.

-      "Myra Breckinridge", the 1968 best seller, a satire set in Hollywood in which the central character undergoes a surgical sex change.

-      The successful Broadway play and later movie "The Best Man", which takes us inside a mean-spirited struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Vidal was also a prolific essayist, whose opinions on sex, politics and religion were published by top magazines of the day. His prodigious knowledge and biting wit made him a popular guest on late night talk shows. 

Getting Vidal onto the ABC Evening News wasn’t that difficult as he loved to tell stories. One day he told me how Ronald Reagan’s agent had tried to get him to cast Reagan as one of the presidential candidates for the film The Best Man. (It came out in 1964, three years before Reagan became governor of California, with Henry Fonda in the role Reagan wanted.) Vidal said, “I told him I didn’t think Reagan was a credible presidential candidate.”  He laughed and added, “So much for my powers of prognostication.”

But then he got serious and explained why he believed that ideology aside, being a movie actor was the worst kind of preparation for the Oval Office. Most movie actors are by nature passive, he told me. They sit on the set and wait for hours to deliver a line or two. When called, they do what the director tells them to do, and then they go back and wait. As he put it, these are not independent thinkers nor men of action, and they’re easily manipulated.

I told him this would make a great commentary and he came back in a day or two with roughly eight minutes of copy. I slashed it down to less than two minutes and we went with it. Time Magazine subsequently ran an item on Vidal’s work for ABC News, noting favorably his remarks about actors in politics.

On June 4rd, 1968, Vidal came into the ABC News Rome office to do a piece on the following day’s Democratic primary in California. A week earlier Senator Eugene McCarthy had soundly defeated Senator Robert Kennedy in Oregon. Vidal hoped for a similar outcome in California.

This was personal. Vidal had once been part of the glitter of Camelot. He and Jacqueline Kennedy were close, having at different times shared the same step-father, the stockbroker Hugh D. Auchincloss. But Bobby Kennedy was offended by Vidal’s bisexuality. He believed it hurt his brother’s image and eventually he had Vidal banned from the White House.

On the morning of June 6th Rome time, I came into the bureau to hear the bulletin bells ringing on the A.P. machine. After winning the California primary, Senator Kennedy had been shot and was barely alive. I immediately called Vidal with the news. “Bobby’s been shot,” I told him. “Oh good,” he said. ”No Gore,” I quickly interjected. “I don’t mean he lost. He has been shot and is not expected to live.” For several seconds there was silence. He then said, “That family’s story is like a Greek tragedy.” He later came into the bureau to broadcast a moving tribute to the Kennedy family on that theme.

The 1968 political conventions were set against the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the Chicago riots it inspired. Buckley was a staunch supporter of the war- Vidal an outspoken critic. The interchange which shocked the nation and is highlighted in the documentary occurs as Buckley is sharply criticizing the antics of the anti-war protesters calling them “pro Nazi.” Vidal counters, ”The only sort of pro-crypto Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Rising out of his chair, a furious Buckley snarls, “Now listen you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Moderator Howard K. Smith restored order- and the show went on. But one certainly might say, nothing on network television news would ever be quite the same.

Decades later I had dinner in Washington with Vidal. He had lost none of his fire. He vividly remembered the debates and still despised Buckley.

Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame has apparently signed on to make a theatrical movie of The Best of Enemies. I can’t wait.

I welcome your comments. To post your thoughts, click the word "comments" below.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece, Barrie. Thank you. I was just 16 when this debate was on TV but I remember it for its passion though the arguments were a bit beyond me. But I was impressed because words seem to matter. That plus Watergate helped nudged me towards journalism. However one rarely saw that mixture of fire, conviction, intelligence and wit dueling on TV in later years. The professional broadcasters always kept things collegial and genial on This Week with David Brinkley. Perhaps that was correct--but it so easily lapses into dull Beltway chatter.