Best of Enemies
Like it or not, there is nothing fair or balanced about television news today, which is but one reason why this documentary has to be seen.
When Oscar season rolls around, it is hard to imagine that any documentary can challenge Best of Enemies in that important but generally overlooked category. In bringing the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions in 1968 back to life, Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon give the audience a first-hand look at how television news changed forever.
1968 was a poisonous year, and as a college junior I was able to occupy a front-row seat. While the Vietnam War raged and a draft loomed for guys my age, all hope seemed to be destroyed with the deaths of Martin Luther King in April and Bobby Kennedy in June. A presidential election loomed in November with Americans likely to be left to choose between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. A contest between Tricky Dick and Hubert (“Let me defend LBJ”) Humphrey pointed in a disastrous direction no matter who won.
As the Republican convention approached in Miami that summer, with the Democrats holding their’s in Chicago, television news remained peaceful, uninvolved and largely quiet. CBS had Walter Cronkite, NBC Huntley and Brinkley while ABC trailed in the basement with Howard K. Smith. Unable to afford gavel-to-gavel coverage as used by it’s two rivals, ABC decided to try something new by employing William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal to appear nightly as commentators. This amazing documentary relives those magic moments when these two smug elitists dueled to the edge of a philosophical death.
Though both Buckley and Vidal were supposed to be analyzing the conventions, they basically spent their time trying to rip each other to shreds. Buckley had given birth to the modern day conservative movement with the creation of both the National Review publication and the TV show “Firing Line”. While living three months out of each year on the Italian coast, Vidal had written a number of acclaimed literary works ranging from “Burr” to “Myra Breckenridge”. Having both run and lost races for public office, these guys had a great deal in common apart from the fact that they genuinely hated each other.
Television had never seen confrontation in the newsroom prior to the encounter between Buckley and Vidal, and it will leave you both laughing and astonished as you watch their debate become personal. Among many memorable exchanges seen in this documentary, the moment where Vidal accuses Buckley of being a “crypto-Nazi” with Buckley angrily responding by calling Vidal “a queer” is a golden moment that will live in television history. Buckley lost his cool facing the well-planned taunts from Vidal, and the ill-will followed them to their graves.
Interestingly, while Buckley and Vidal remain the centerpiece of this penetrating documentary, our directors turned the camera on the mayhem that was happening outside both conventions. In Miami, a nearly all white Republican convention had to face growing hostility from a black culture still seething over the death of King, while the Democratic convention exploded in a sea of violence on the street. Law and order was the mantra of both Nixon and Chicago Mayor Dailey, and police agencies around the country embraced that command in racial terms still being played out to this very day.
It is hard to imagine that 1968 was a year when the protests against the Vietnam War grew ever more vocal while Americans were about to elect a president who would send more young Americans to the grave than occurred during LBJ’s tenure. This film serves as a small reminder that our country was engaged in a meaningless war in a country that now serves as a vacation destination for many Americans. It is disturbing to realize that many of those who are opposing President Obama’s agreement with Iran are echoing the same words that justified the Vietnam conflict.
I don’t know about many of you, but it is tough for me to watch TV news today. Instead of information we get bickering and opinions, and it becomes at times far too nauseating to watch, much less pay attention. Chris Matthews screams and interrupts on CNBC while Bill O’Reilly and his Fox colleagues preach a conservative mantra that arrogantly dismisses non-believers.
This entrancing documentary demonstrates that thanks to the Buckley/Vidal wrestling match in 1968, fair and balanced news went to the grave along with Cronkite, Severeid and Huntley/Brinkley.