Half a century ago, William Buckley and Gore Vidal brilliantly castigated each other on air. It’s been downhill ever since.
They came loaded for bear. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, representing the political poles in America, sat in front of the ABC News cameras in 1968 and, though hired to discuss the events of each party’s political conventions and their path toward their presidential tickets, these men each arrived with the intention of taking down the other. For the good of the nation.
During the summer 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions, the United States was in turmoil, the chasm between youth culture and the establishment widening as the war in Vietnam dragged on, killing kids, killing civilians, killing hope. In March of that year, two weeks after the My Lai Massacre, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated two months later. Riots raged across the United States, in cities large and small. Major publications gave serious consideration to the possibility of a new U.S. civil war.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Vidal told him, “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.”
“Now listen, you queer,” Buckley said, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in you goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Unlike now, conventions in those days were not a stage play with the outcomes predetermined. In 1968, neither party went in with a clear candidate. Actual politics would be conducted.
For the previous several conventions, the three television networks had made it their journalistic duty to cover the proceedings “gavel-to-gavel,” meaning from late afternoon until whenever business was concluded, usually before midnight, but, if there were a floor fight, well into the night.
Of the three networks—there were only three then, plus the precursor to PBS—ABC was a distant third. It had been founded later, was less funded, had fewer affiliates. It had neither the resources nor the personalities to draw viewership, and, in 1968, the ABC network chiefs decided they couldn’t afford gavel-to-gavel coverage. It wasn’t that live coverage was expensive; rather, they needed the income that their primetime programming would generate. While NBC and CBS would broadcast political speeches, ABC offered instead The Flying Nun, Bewitched, Batman and Land of the Giants (giving a new meaning to TV as escapism). Then, after its regular nightly news, ABC would offer 90 minutes of what it termed “unconventional convention coverage,” a five-segment nightly summation of the day. They’d open with a synopsis of the day’s events and close with an update. In between was “Correspondents’ Caucus,” a roundtable discussion from the leading ABC reporters; “Closeup” an in-depth analysis of the day’s major events; and “A Second Look,” which featured Buckley and Vidal and was described in a press release: “William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal will ‘discuss,’ in their usually irreverent fashion, the men and issues. Astute and articulate observers of the political scene, the conservative Buckley and outspoken liberal Vidal are expected to disagree occasionally.”
ABC was ridiculed by news organizations from all media for forsaking its journalistic responsibility, but the results of their desperate measure surprised everyone.
Both Buckley and Vidal had already developed large public personae, including a renowned dislike for each other. Their first confrontation had been in print in 1961, a series of Associated Press columns, each presenting opposing sides on current affairs. Then in 1962 Vidal, already a favorite guest of TV talk show host Jack Paar, made fun of Buckley and National Review for rejecting Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, which called on Catholics to embrace social progress. Buckley learned of this televised insult as he was departing the country and he left a telegram with his office to send to Paar that, according to Buckley, included the line: PLEASE INFORM GORE VIDAL THAT NEITHER I NOR MY FAMILY IS DISPOSED TO RECEIVE LESSONS IN MORALITY FROM A PINK QUEER.
His office did not send it, and instead Buckley demanded time for a response, garnering his first national TV appearance. There he surprised Paar by speaking intelligently and precisely from a conservative viewpoint when Paar was expecting the prejudiced and crude talk associated with the John Birch Society, the group that had long emblematized the political right. But Buckley had been actively re-branding the conservatives, distancing the movement from what he called “the kooks and the anti-Semites,” positioning himself as a spokesman for a thoughtful, reasoned political stance. Buckley handled himself well on television and, like Vidal, understood the power of the medium to reach into broad swaths of America personally, with a message undiluted.
Despite political differences, the two men seemed cut from the same cloth: Their mid-Atlantic speaking accents were haughty, their demeanors were aloof, they exuded breeding and education. However, for each, these airs had been cultured; they were not born into the Eastern establishment, and didn’t have the usual New England prep school backgrounds (though each did attend elite academies, Buckley at Andover and Vidal at Exeter). Vidal came from Oklahoma and Tennessee stock and was raised in the U.S. Senate where his blind grandfather served, developing a political education by reading aloud to him the Congressional Record and other necessary documents. Buckley’s family was wealthy, but nouveau, their Catholicism keeping them outside the WASPish circle of their Connecticut bluebloods neighbors. Tutored from an early age, Bill went on to Yale while Vidal opted not to pursue college—each angling for his own route of attack on the culture’s dominant forces. Vidal published his first book in 1946 but became an enfant terrible with The City and the Pillar in 1948, a novel that dealt unapologetically and sympathetically with a homosexual protagonist. Buckley published his first book three years later, God and Man at Yale, a controversial attack on an institution that he proclaimed was leaning too far left, promulgating communism, and attacking religion. Their positions staked, we can look back and see these polar opposites being slowly drawn toward each other.
As outsiders with atypical establishmentarian backgrounds, they were comfortable moving to television at a time when the boob tube was still disparaged as déclassé. On September 23, 1962, they appeared together on the syndicated David Susskind program, a tête-à-tête that proved them equally matched for wit, though polarized in world views. Apparently neither felt like they’d completed what they set out to do at that meeting, and they appeared again with Susskind on July 15, 1964, from the San Francisco Republican National Convention. There, the sparring continued, an undercurrent of loathing gradually surfacing, and afterward Buckley informed Vidal he wanted to never see him again, the rare statement from Buckley with which Vidal could agree.
Enter ABC and 1968. As the press release reveals, ABC knew that bringing the two together could create friction and that the sparks could attract more viewers. In fact, when Buckley was hired, the network asked him, perhaps slyly, whom he’d like as an opponent from the liberal side, and then asked him for names he’d prefer not to debate. Buckley, as he later recounted in Esquire, said that as a matter of principle he’d not debate a communist, and also not Gore Vidal “because I had had unpleasant experiences with him in the past and did not trust him.” Vidal, who also claimed he was hired first, says he asked not to face Buckley because he didn’t want to lend him any credibility or create opportunity for him to spread his message. Nonetheless, each assented when he learned who his opponent would be, drawn no doubt by the power of the national audience he’d have and also, not insignificantly, by the $10,000 fee (approximately $70,000 in 2015 currency). Their tasks also included filming commentaries inserted into the newscasts prior to the conventions and appearing in November on election night.
Coverage began two days prior to each convention. Within minutes of their first conversation, these high-minded individuals took the low road. After Vidal contemns the Republicans as the party of greed, Buckley turns personal, assaulting Vidal and his most recent novel, Myra Breckinridge, which Vidal once described as about “a man who becomes a woman who becomes a man”—scandalous for its time and quickly a bestseller. Though Buckley was first in shifting from the political to the personal, Vidal had come prepared to do just that, having hired researchers to create a dossier on Buckley and pre-scripting pages of insults to hurl at his opponent. (My favorite is describing Buckley as “the Marie Antoinette of the right-wing.”) Buckley, who had opened a dossier on Vidal in 1965, makes frequent insinuations about Vidal’s homosexuality, saying in the first debate, “We know your tendency is to be feline, Mr. Vidal.”
Not unlike the way exposure to the natural elements destroys old paper and paintings, the national camera and its bright lights serve to degrade wit, erudition and commitment to political thought. Before these debates were over—in the penultimate meeting, as if scripted by a Hollywood writer—Buckley and Vidal were reduced to schoolyard name-calling, an ugly ad hominem attack that had been brewing for years, that night after night the klieg lights had warmed until ready to serve. Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley called Vidal a queer and threatened physical violence. They each knew the single term that could pierce the other’s psyche.