“I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.”
—William F. Buckley, Jr.
The sentiment above may perfectly encapsulate the politest inner (and entertainingly outer) intellectual assessment of Buckley to ideological enemy Gore Vidal and vice versa.
Fortunately, for political and philosophical enthusiasts, the 20th century’s intellectual brainpower of the citizenry for conservatives and liberals made sure to apply their thoughts and opinions in the form of never-before-seen jabs and rhetorical roundhouse kicks on national television. Even more fortunate is that a documentary of their epic battle on the desperate ABC network for the 1968 presidential election at the Democratic and Republican Conventions was made.
(Best of Enemies is one title both sides can, surprisingly, agree on)
Debate has rarely seen such high-minded, reserved intellect juxtaposed with simmering, raw emotion.
Buckley and Vidal are undeniably confident and charming, especially to the delight of each person’s admirers. But even members of the opposition have to salute their rivals’ clear linguistic prowess and quick wit, despite overwhelming differences in their views of the world.
With the evolution of cable news and constantly improving technology to record and disperse communication, this sort of televised political fireworks was bound to happen. The difference with William F. Buckley, Jr. vs. Gore Vidal is that it was lightning in a bottle between two giants in political commentary and American society more broadly. Moments like this are rare and profoundly cherished. Duplicating this magic is virtually impossible.
Just ask movie studios.
Another difference from the era gone by as documented in Best of Enemies was the selectivity of the highest intellect on politics, life and the social order for a prime-time 1 v 1 battle. Conversely, today’s public dissensions simulate the worst instincts of reality television, comprising of endless small ball soundbites and unrestrained, obnoxious insults interrupted with occasional insight and guidance by writers and thinkers of substance and perspective.
There are intellectual leaders and commentators of conservatism and liberalism in today’s journalism ranks, but they aren’t given the same elevated and exclusive platform as Buckley and Vidal. They’re here, just waiting to sit directly across their enemy to battle on the front lines of their cause for the future of the nation’s civilization on television’s biggest stage.
Ultimately, was this epic match-up between two men with seismic intelligence, who genuinely despised one another as displayed by their heated temperaments, good for public discourse and debate on television? For their respective movements?
Either way, “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.”