MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville on BEST OF ENEMIES

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In this country we have Poet Laureates, but not Pundit Laureates. (At least not yet.) Even if we did, the honor would have originated and ended with William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal, two of the most outspoken of American intellectuals, who rose to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, and were almost unique then in their mastery of both the print and television media. The new documentary Best of Enemies (Magnolia Pictures) charts their explosive intersection when they were contracted by ABC News to provide commentary on the live TV broadcasts of the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami and Democratic Convention in Chicago. Their appearances were a calculated gamble by the network, then dead third in the ratings. (As “New York Magazine” writer Frank Rich, one of the film’s many witty talking heads, quips, “Somebody famously said the way to end the Vietnam War was to put it on ABC, and it’d be cancelled in 13 weeks.”)

Buckley was a vigorously conservative Republican, Gore a visionary liberal Democrat; both had run, unsuccessfully, for public office earlier in their careers. With the live televised debates they ascended a huge national platform from which to air their opposing views, and their rapid-fire, barbed remarks were both hilarious and chilling in their personal malice. They proved ratings gold for ABC; as the film makes clear, none of the Big Three networks ever went back to mere gavel-to-gavel coverage again.

Best of Enemies marks the fifth collaboration between filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (the latter won an Oscar for Twenty Feet from Stardom). This latest project began when Gordon viewed a bootlegged DVD of the 1968 debate footage and passed it on to Neville. Their film not only sheds light on our political past and the history of television, but also makes challenging connections between the debates and how they contributed to the fragmented, often polarizing news landscape we’re in today. I talked with the directors via phone during the end of their recent publicity tour in New York.

Andrea Gronvall: One of the most impressive things about Buckley and Vidal was their conviction: there appeared to be no switching the message to pander to viewers, no walking it back. Agree? Disagree?

Robert Gordon: Agree, yes! There’s two and a half hours of raw debate footage and I’ve come to know it intimately. When I first watched that DVD I was amazed at how contemporary they were, how prescient they were. It was in a way like the Big Bang of the culture wars.

Morgan Neville: 100 % agree. What’s so interesting is that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have people like this on TV, what it’s like to hear people who sound like this. They were completely unpredictable, and that unpredictability is compulsively watchable. They’re not debating the issues of the Republican and Democratic conventions so much as they’re debating the condition of the republic. They were each convinced that if the other side won, it would be the downfall of the nation. There was no play-acting. Whereas today you get the feeling most of the TV pundits can go out for a drink together after the show.

AG: Yes, today it does seem like a little club, where ratings trump all. But is there anyone on the horizon who might cut a swath in the new-ideas mold of Buckley and Vidal?

RG: I would be anxious to hear your suggestions because I have none. We’re in an anti-intellectual age. With the death of Christopher Hitchens, it’s hard to come up with someone. Maybe Andrew Sullivan.

MN: I think there isn’t. And I think they [Buckley, Vidal, and ABC] knew it at the time. This was a moment of the decorum breaking down.

AG: Don’t you think that being in Chicago, amidst all the chaos and demonstrations in the streets and Grant Park, added a whole set of stressors to their TV appearances?

MN: It’s not a coincidence that their blowup in the studio came the night of the events in Grant Park. They had witnessed the violence, watched the news tapes. They were the patrician white stand-ins for the two sides warring in Grant Park. And I honestly think that some of their new ideas were actually the old ideas, and the thing that really interested them is history. They were both students of American history, and what they saw happening in our country they viewed as an assault on the republic. They were also both well versed in ancient Roman and Greek history. I think that Buckley was bowing to the god of Rome, and Vidal was bowing to the god of Greece.

RG:  Neither would kowtow to his own political party. Bill would reshape his party; that was his goal. Vidal was running around the Democratic Convention trying to form a fourth party.

MN: Vidal and Buckley were concerned about sticking to talking points. They weren’t worried about the rolodex; they didn’t see the debates as essential to their careers, because each had other careers. The $70,000 each was paid, although it was certainly nice, wasn’t as attractive as the huge national audience they could reach.

AG: Buckley and Vidal reveled in their own sophistication and verbal virtuosity. They did not try to mask their intelligence in order to come across as just regular guys. Today they would have a tough time selling that stance on TV, but looking back, I think they were actually respecting the intelligence of their viewers, not condescending to them.

MN: You’re completely correct: they didn’t condescend. Nowadays the audience test is, do I want to go out to have a beer with the guy? Now even smart guys pretend to be dumb.

RG: There’s a difference between George W. Bush the man and his public persona. Bush went to Harvard and Yale, but played that down in public. Obama does something like that, too, when he gets into his folksy mode. I don’t want to have a drink with my elected officials, I want to be somewhat in awe of them, because they’re people who make decisions, and I want smart people to be the ones making decisions. Being put off by intelligence is nuts. I don’t know how Americans got that way.

MN: [As the film shows] TV is driven by ratings. And the synonym for higher ratings is the lowest common denominator. But a lot has to do with what we expect. Back in the 60s the networks regarded news as a service. Today they see it as a profit center. Part of what is so refreshing about the Vidal and Buckley debates is they’re truly [ideological] opposites, and speaking to an audience whose minds they were trying to change. Today we’re at a kind of “through the looking glass” moment. The people who are in news are trying to be entertainers, and the people who are in entertainment are trying to be newsmen. You know, the saying about Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart is that O’Reilly is insincere, but pretending to be sincere, while Stewart is sincere, while pretending to be insincere.

AG: The point to which the “action” in Best of Enemies builds is, of course, the jaw-dropping “crypto-Nazi”/”queer” exchange, when Vidal nearly goads Buckley into violence. After that, we witness the decades-long fallout. Why do you think Buckley could never get over that particular moment of heat and human fallibility?

RG: Well, I would have to answer that it’s about the tension between him and Vidal. It’s the self-recognition that each saw in each other and the fear that they would be mistaken for each other. [Journalist and Buckley biographer] Sam Tanenhaus hit on something in the film, about what they had in common: they both came from notable families and went to boarding schools, they each published their groundbreaking books around the same time. They had these parallel lives, but they diverged along the lines of God and sex. Bill spent 33 years on “Firing Line” taking on all comers across the political spectrum, and this was the only time that he blew up. For years he tried to explain himself, but every time he tried to make it better, he only cemented it harder.

MN: You just said: it was a moment of fallibility. And one of the things he never wanted to show was fallibility. This was one moment he lost his cool, and it happened in a very public way. And I don’t think he could forgive himself for that.

AG: You spent five years making the movie, right?

RG: The first four years were a labor of love. Then, once we got funded, everything came together in the final year. Then we could settle into it and work on it full-time, and we could do a deep archival sweep. We had to pay for a lot of old footage, and that’s why we had to wait for funding.

MN: This was not an easy film to make. We thought this would be the perfect film for the 2012 election. Little did we know how hard it was going to be to get financing.

AG: Understandably, you don’t want to name names, and single out anyone who wouldn’t give you money, but could you provide a “for instance” about the obstacles you faced?

MN: The “for instance” is everybody. I pitched this all over to everyone. We were selling a documentary about two old dead men talking in a room many years ago. You watch the finished movie, it’s thrilling, but we had to work hard to explain it to potential funders. We covered all our expenses out of our own pockets for a while, but that’s why we do this work. Robert and I started out as journalists; I still think of myself as a journalist. We looked at the news media and thought, let’s discuss how we argue. Let’s discuss the way our discourse could unfold before we begin talking the issues.

RG: It’s the double-edged sword of news and the media. We all share the same news. We didn’t think about it then [back in the 60s] that what we heard was determined by a group of white-haired guys who chose what Walter Cronkite would cover. Now you have social media impacting Tahrir Square, and on-the-ground footage shot on cell phones. Everyone’s entitled to opinion of his own, but there’s no fact-checking of news [when it’s reported by nonprofessionals]. And that’s very dangerous.

AG: What kind of stuff didn’t make the final version of the film?

MN: Some of the people we interviewed didn’t make the final cut: [linguist and activist] Noam Chomsky; [journalist] Bob Scheer; Bill’s brother, Senator James Buckley; and Vidal. We shot an interview with Vidal shortly before he died, but decided against using it.

AG: I read that you decided against including that because Buckley had died before you began filming, and you didn’t want to seem like you were giving Gore the last word. But was it also kindness on your part, because Vidal was so infirm?

MN: If he had added something new, I think we would have put it in the film. But he already had said almost everything he had to say on Buckley before. Yes, he was not well, but he was still very sharp. I think he disagreed not with our film’s thematic concept, but with our premise that he and Buckley were in any way comparable, that they were the reverse image of each other.

AG: Oh, but that archival still of them being made up in the ABC green room is such a yin-yang image.

MN: They were their own distinct personalities, and yet the debates helped define them for the rest of their lives.

AG: One last thing: what question have you not been asked about Best of Enemies, but wish that you had?

MN: “When did you realize it was a comedy?”

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