William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal & The Best (Worst) TV Debate Ever

“There are many people in the United States who happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam, and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their own country in their own way politically,” said Gore Vidal during a TV debate during the 1968 Democratic Convention. “This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad, but I assume that the point of the American democracy—”

“And some people were pro-Nazi, too! Some people were pro-Nazi –” his opponent, William F. Buckley interjected.

This live-TV discussion occurred in response to an anti-Vietnam protest-turned riot on the streets of Chicago, during the 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention.  The two public figures (Vidal and Buckley) had just finished watching ABC’s live coverage of the chaos and violence, and were visibly disturbed by the imagery.  Vidal was first to criticize the police abuse by comparing America’s law enforcement situation to Soviet Russia.  This prompted a rebuttal by Buckley, in which he urged Vidal not to mistake “individual and despicable acts” with “implicit totalitarianism in the American system.”

The moderator had pressed Vidal on the right to free expression. The protestors had raised the Viet Cong flag…should this be considered a “provocative act?”

Here is where that opening exchange comes into play. Vidal argued that regardless of how provocative the move was, the protesters were protected under the rights of assembly and free expression. In fact, he asserted, this right to assemble and express their views was an inherent facet of American democracy. This is where it gets heated…

Buckley: “Raising a Nazi flag in World War II would have had similar consequences.”

Vidal: “Shut up a minute!”

Buckley: “No, I won’t! Some people were pro-Nazi, and the answer is that they were — they were well treated by people who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care, because you don’t have any sense of identification.”

Vidal: “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that, I will only say that if we can’t have the right of assembly…”

(All the while, the disgruntled moderator is trying and failing to keep the peace. The jabs continue)

Buckley: “Now listen, you queer — stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered!”

(Amid the moderator’s pleas for civility you can hear Vidal say “oh Bill” in a kind of patronizing worriment. Buckley continues his lightning fast onslaught)

Buckley: “Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography and stop making any illusions of Nazism to somebody who was in the infantry in the last war.”

(For context, “Myra Breckinridge” was Gore Vidal’s satirical transsexual novel that caused quite a stir when it first came out, as you can imagine)

The heated exchange, although over quickly, lived on for years in both men’s minds. Both intellectuals filed defamation suits against one another. Dueling essays by both men were published in Esquire, and the New York magazine ranked the debate as one of the greatest moments in TV history. And great they were, but for other reasons besides entertainment and “intellectual prowess” (if you can call any televised debate that).

The Buckley-Vidal debates of the late 60s represent the beginning of what is now recognized as the heated, argumentative political TV industry. You know the routine; bring on two or four “experts” representing two differing opinions on an issue and let them fight it out, with the moderator doing everything but moderating. It’s what’s Deborah Tannen coined “the argument culture” in her book of the same name.

Argument culture is what forces us to view ideas, opinions, and groups as a fight between two opposing forces. It’s what fools us into thinking representing both sides in a debate is noble, regardless of how insensitive or minor each side is. It’s what fools us into thinking debates are an effective avenue hashing out ideas and creating dialogue.

Buckley’s mishap haunted him for the rest of his life. Linda Bridges, a longtime National Review editor recalls how shaken Buckley was that he had reacted so fiercely to Vidal’s aggravations. In a TV interview late in his life, the host showed the heated clip from the debates; he then asked Buckley about the incident. Buckley’s face was a mix of shock and shame. Once the commercial break came on, Buckley ran off stage to one of his confidants in the audience; he had thought the clip was lost to history.

Vidal didn’t seem to get off scratch-free either. According to sources close to Vidal, he became obsessed with Buckley, especially in his allegations that Buckley was a closet homosexual. An interaction later on in Vidal’s life seemed to show a sliver of guilt about what he did during his late 60’s debates with Buckley. During a radio interview, a listener called in, calling Vidal out for his entrapment of Buckley during that debate. The caller argued that Buckley was the more honest of the two men; Vidal’s cunning button-pushing and Buckley’s outraged response were evidence of this. Vidal, the caller said, knew what he was doing. He was purposely trying to egg on his opponent. The glimmer of satisfaction on Vidal’s face after Buckley exploded was evidence enough to the caller that Vidal had concealed his true intentions. Buckley’s outrage, according to the caller, was evidence that he was an honest man, honestly outraged over Vidal’s provocations.

After the caller finished his condemnation of Vidal’s actions, Vidal launched into a counter-argument (or should we say denial). But his facial reactions to the caller’s accusations was all too clear. He knew what he had done, and he wasn’t at peace with it.

If anything, this heated engagement between two public intellectuals should be a lesson to all of us. When you play with fire, don’t be surprised when everything blows up in your face. Debates are entertaining for both entertainer and entertained. One gets brand awareness and support from their fans, while the other gets pseudo-intellectualism disguised as enlightened entertainment.

But don’t forget this…debates thrive on passive-aggression. You’re not debating to strengthen understanding, fix problems, or enlighten the masses. You’re debating to win. It is in essence, and ego stroke for both the debaters and the audience. And once in a while, that passive-aggression will boil over, showing the true nature of what a debate is.

Author’s note: this piece is based on “The Best of Enemies,” a documentary about the Buckley-Vidal debates during the ’68 republican and democratic conventions, with further information borrowed from the National Review piece, Buckley, Vidal, And The Long, Hot Summer of ’68.

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