The compelling new documentary Best of Enemies portrays William Buckley and Gore Vidal as parallel lives destined to clash, each embodying and foreshadowing 50 years of American culture wars. Buckley’s brother recounts that the founder of National Review was a conservative Christian Libertarian. Vidal was an atheist, bisexual/homosexual and statist.
Otherwise, the two had much in common, both coming from notable wealthy families, although both were largely self made men. They were about the same age, both served in the army in WWII though never leaving the USA. Both were public intellectuals and connoisseurs of high culture who lacked advanced degrees, Vidal not even attending college. Both ran for public office unsuccessfully but entertainingly. Both were charming performers who delighted in the spotlight and ideological battle. Both were prolific commentators and novelists who became celebrities, easily befriending the rich and famous.
They despised each other, and their denouement was an acidic exchange on ABC during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” while Buckley called Vidal a “queer” whom he would “sock” in the “goddamn face.” They litigated against each for years. Vidal relished their feud, as he did all his many hatreds. Buckley, who cherished friendship with ideological opponents, remained embarrassed by the encounter.
As a Catholic, Buckley loathed Vidal’s cynicism, amorality, and sexual libertinism. As a patriot and Cold Warrior, he also despised Vidal’s petulant portrayal of America as a decadent empire ripe for revolution. Vidal insisted he didn’t hate his country, claiming he was instead its biographer, through historical fiction about Lincoln and Aaron Burr, whom he portrayed as cynical, venal and self-serving as himself, which was maybe partly true for Burr. His risqué novel Myra Breckinridge celebrated transsexuality. A novel about Julian the Apostate celebrated the Roman Emperor who attempted to revive paganism against Christianity. Truman Capote, another of Vidal’s many enemies, predicted Vidal’s novels would rapidly be forgotten.
Vidal lived in an Italian villa majestically overlooking the Mediterranean, where he said he could observe the collapse of Western Civilization. There he would endlessly watch video of his clashes against Buckley, with his guests as captive audience. Best of Enemies, although trying to be sympathetic, likens Vidal to aging, forgotten silent screen star Nora Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. In his 1968 Chicago debate, Vidal sneeringly prophesied American collapse. Buckley, in contrast, hitched his star to the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 election was Buckley’s vindication.
At his end, Buckley was mentally creaky but spiritually ready, his faith intact. Vidal declared his nemesis was in Hell, joining “forever, those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.” Supposedly Vidal disbelieved afterlife, and his obsession against religion persuaded some that he would eventually yield to it. Instead he died in an alcoholic haze with whatever resentments that could survive his dementia.
Best of Enemies focuses on the brief Buckley-Vidal duel amid the tear gas and riots of 1968 Chicago, which drove both of them towards apocalyptic fears and rhetoric. But it’s really about the two major irreconcilable religio-cultural forces that divide America today. Cultural elites overwhelmingly side with Vidal, but how long can that stance of nihilistic resentment based on supposed intellectual superiority endure? As one Vidal relative recounted after his death: “Anger was Gore’s default mode. He wanted to go out like Ebenezer Scrooge, with a huge finger to everyone around him.”
In a 1992 lecture Vidal denounced monotheism as the “great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture” originating “from a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament,” resulting in “three anti-human religions:” Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which he mocked as “sky-god religions.”
Buckley of course cleaved to the “sky-god,” for which reason his legacy will endure when Vidal’s is recalled, if at all, mainly as a sad, nasty caricature.