In 1968, television stations NBC and CBS provided full coverage at the Presidential Conventions. ABC was clearly #3 in the ratings; they had less money for this sort of presentation. They needed something provocative to rein in the American public, so they settled on a debate between William F. Buckley, Jr. and writer Gore Vidal. It was a shot in the dark but the decision changed TV forever.
William F. Buckley, Jr. - Wikimedia
William F. Buckley, Jr. was the founder of a conservative magazine in 1955 entitled “National Review.” He also hosted a television show called “Firing Line” where he interviewed notables in several broad fields, using an extensive vocabulary which was often inscrutable to the ordinary man.
Writer Gore Vidal was a brilliant, liberal political commentator known for his wit and intelligence. His grandfather had been a United States senator, which spurred Vidal to run for Congress as well as for the Senate, both of which races he lost. He published over thirty novels as well as numerous non-fiction stories and essays on a variety of topics. His historical novels sold in the millions.
When Buckley was asked to do the program for ABC, he responded that he would not go on with a Communist, nor would he go on with Gore Vidal. He characterized Vidal as the devil, a man who was the epitome of everything that was degenerative about the country. So ABC hired Buckley and Vidal to debate at the Presidential Conventions in 1968.
Gore Vidal viewed William Buckley as anti-democratic. It is true that he was a revolutionary. Vidal wanted the National Review to be described as a racist and anti-Semitic magazine. He was interested in exposing Buckley to the world. In 1968, Vidal published his novel “Myra Breckenridge” which is considered the greatest satire every written, and way ahead of its time. It also became a motion picture. His career started soaring. He even made the cover of Time Magazine. Gore Vidal got under William F. Buckley’s skin.
Fergus Reid Buckley, the younger brother of William, was interviewed for the film and stated that Gore Vidal was a Whore of Debate; he is brilliant; he is fun to watch, but he leaves a residue of nausea when you watch him.
Gore Vidal - Wikimedia
The Republic Convention in Miami Beach in 1968
The 1968 Republican Convention in Miami Beach pitted Ronald Reagan against Richard Nixon. It was the first Presidential Convention to be shown on Color TV. William Buckley went sailing to Cozumel the week before the Convention and probably made no preparations for the debate. He was definitely not prepared for Gore Vidal. Both were aware of the problem that America could no longer stay on the path it was on.
Gore Vidal characterized the Republican Party as a political party based entirely on human greed. He indicated to William Buckley that he had suggested in his “little” magazine, “National Review,” that North Vietnam should be atom-bombed. There was nothing feigned about their mutual enmity. They actually despised one another. Each thought the other was dangerous.
The Insults Begin
After the two appeared on the Jack Paar show in 1966, Gore Vidal sent William Buckley a letter stating that he never wanted to see him again. Buckley found this to be agreeable. Vidal said that William Buckley would be nothing without his program “Firing Line.” “Firing Line” actually elevated the discourse and educated people.
The four-day event in Miami was called the Unconventional Conventional Coverage. 80% of the American people watched the Convention in 1968.
Gore Vidal asked the question “Can an Aging Hollywood Juvenile Actor defeat Richard Nixon?” William Buckley was his generation’s greatest debater. He could easily dismantle his opponent’s argument. He poked fun at the fact that the writer of “Myra Breckenridge” had been invited to the Republican Convention. Gore Vidal, though, was the great talker of his time. He claimed that William Buckley was the Marie Antoinette of the Right Wing. He had tried these bon mots on the reporters in the press room before going on stage.
Each of these debaters saw in the other an image of himself. Both spoke with patrician accents. Both went to boarding schools, and were members of the Eastern establishment. They were intellectuals which did not usually appeal to an audience, but people warmed to them. Gore Vidal made the statement that there are two things you never turn down - sex and appearing on television. They were both aware that television was the present as well as the future. You have to be on it and you have to use it well.
Gore Vidal had strong opinions and he aired them. He wrote a novel about homosexuality, a risk that no one before him was willing to take. Gore Vidal never answered the question of whether or not he himself was gay.
President Ronald Reagan - Wikimedia
Liberal vs. Conservative
William Buckley stated that the Left Wing (liberals) were never hesitant to smear anyone from the Right Wing (conservatives). The Right Wing did not want to be connected with Naziism and Fascism, and the Left Wing was determined to pin that label on the Right Wing. William Buckley stated that Liberalism suggested that it could bring happiness, which should really have been found in people’s religion, in their institutions, and in themselves. Gore Vidal claimed that the Republicans were dividing the country along lines of race. He asserted that people were disaffected by Nixon who would never draw the blacks or the poor to him. He claimed that Buckley did not believe in democracy; he believed in rule by the elites, starting with himself.
The ABC network was overjoyed with the coverage. The only fun of the Convention was the nightly tete-a-tete between Gore Vidal and William Buckley. They were enormously successful. Vidal commented that he had always wanted to keep his political life and his literal life separate, but he then went on to write a play entitled “The Best Man,” which was about a political convention.
Political Ambitions of Both Debaters
Earlier, in 1965, William Buckley was bent on defeating John Lindsay for the office of Mayor of New York City. Buckley was defeated. He felt satisfied that he had re-introduced the two-party system in New York City.
Gore Vidal also ran for Congress in New York State in 1960. He saw it as his first step to the Presidency. He saw himself as being born into the world of the elite. He was related to Jackie Kennedy by marriage. He had been a welcome visitor to the White House until he had a run-in with Bobby Kennedy. He saw Kennedy as his rival for the presidency in the future. Bobby also took an immediate dislike to Vidal Gore. He saw him as pompous and arrogant.
The Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1958
So they met again in Chicago at the International Amphitheater for the Democratic Convention. Mayor Daley had beautified everything. Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey were the candidates, after Robert Kennedy had been killed. It was a repudiation of the Lyndon Johnson policies in Vietnam.
Gore Vidal commented that Chicago was in a shambles. It was a police state, attempting to quell the riots. William Buckley’s intellectual equal was here. Vidal was an aggressive debater. He remained unphased. Each night, there was more spectacle to be had. Mayor Daley ranted “As long as I am Mayor, there will be law and order in Chicago.”
Vidal stated that we have lost the war. 90% of the casualties are civilians and we are being accused of genocide. The American Empire is very much overextended. William Buckley’s brother commented in the film that Gore Vidal always disliked the United States. He expatriated himself several months a year in Rome, Italy. He always called the U.S. an Empire. Buckley was right; it has become an Empire. This is our present dilemma.
President Richard Nixon - Wikimedia
Chaos in Chicago
The Democratic Convention in Chicago took place from August 26th to the 29th in 1968. Gore said again that it was like living under the Soviet Regime; there were riots everywhere. The guards, the soldiers, the roughing up, were distasteful. People realized that our involvement in Vietnam was wrong.
William Buckley rebutted that through the night he heard sheer utter obscenities towards the President of the United States. He claimed that the police committed not a single wrong against anyone.
The Debate Becomes Vicious
It was at this point that the two debaters started throwing insults at each other. Gore Vidal called William Buckley a “Crypto-Nazi” which means it is kept under wraps to avoid political suicide. William Buckley countered by calling Gore Vidal an obscenity regarding his sexual orientation. These were fighting words but neither was considered profanity at the time. Vidal was fortunate that Buckley did not punch him in the nose. The worst insult of all occurred after the mikes were off when Gore Vidal smiled at William Buckley and said “Well, I guess we gave them their money’s worth this evening.” Vidal was a smart enough politician to know at that moment that he had won the debate. He said of Buckley “He is a bad person, politically. To expose him on television is my job. I’ve left the bleeding corpse of William Buckley on the floor of the Convention in Chicago.”
Buckley could not let it go. He wrote a piece for Esquire Magazine entitled “On Experiencing Gore Vidal.” Gore Vidal replied with an article in the same magazine entitled “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley.”
Lawsuit and Counter Lawsuit
William Buckley instituted a suit against Gore Vidal, and Gore Vidal instituted a counter suit. Esquire finally stated that they had had enough. It looked like Buckley had won the suit, but about a week before it went to court, Buckley called off the suit.
Ronald Reagan won the Presidency. “National Review” had a profound influence on him. Buckley became a king maker and was viewed as a king maker.
Some of Gore Vidal’s greatest writing occurred in the 1980’a. In his book “Burr,” about Aaron Burr, a character known as William de la Touche Clancy is supposedly based on William Buckley.
Gore Vidal spoke about the feud every day. It had never healed. Buckley was distressed about it also.
When Gore was asked to comment on William Buckley’s death in 2008, he stated “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those he served in life.”
Never again did any television network do such a coverage.