by Drew Martin
I just watched a new documentary about an old debate. Best of Enemies is a fairly new release about the televised debates between the politically and morally clashing intellectuals William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the ABC News coverage of the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.
The climax is Buckley's rage to Vidal when he loses it and spouts:
Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.
It's a moment that changed the course of television: the gloves were off and any chance of legitimate debate was trumped by this kind of caustic banter.
In the epilogue of the tenth debate Vidal offers, "I think these great debates are absolutely nonsense. The way they're set up, there's no interchange of ideas, very little, even, of personality. There's also the terrible thing about this medium that hardly anyone listens. They sort of get an impression of someone and think they've figured out just what he's like by seeing him on television."
One commentator says the debate was the harbinger of the unhappy future of television. And in response to a question to Buckley, "Does television run America?" he responds that "there is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating."
Television as the public square was over. A commentator suggests, "The ability to talk the same language is gone. More and more we are divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation because what binds us together is the picture in our heads. But if these people are not sharing those ideas they're not living in the same place."