Looking for something smart on TV this weekend? Try your local movie theatre.
“Best of Enemies” opens in selected cinemas—including Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox—this Friday, July 31. The documentary, from filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon (“Respect Yourself: The Staxx Records Story”), looks at a fascinating footnote to the explosive year 1968.
William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal (above) were at opposite ends of the political spectrum when ABC asked them to appear in a series of 10 debates framed around the ’68 Republican and Democratic conventions. ABC was fourth in a three network race back then, particularly in news coverage. In the days before cable news channels and the Internet, a time of great civilization, it was still Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley and those other guys on ABC giving you the news.
I turned 11 that summer so you’d think politics would not interest a child at a time when Batman and Get Smart! were other options. Canada, however, had enjoyed its own political soap opera months earlier as the Liberals chose Pierre Elliott Trudeau as their leader and prime minister. That convention was like a Batman episode with an anybody-but-Trudeau movement adding drama to the proceedings. I’ll never forget cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh, in all her Selma Diamond glory, snarling “We’ve got to get this bastard!” To John Turner or Robert Winters or whoever else was trying to keep Trudeau from his inevitable victory.
In America, the stakes were much higher. That Trudeau youth movement, fueled by Canada’s sunny centennial year, seemed snuffed out south of the border with the violent deaths of two Kennedys. It was very us vs. them in the streets of Chicago, with protesters losing faith in political options as Richard Nixon loomed in the wings.
So two pissy eggheads sorting this all out on TV was a smart move on ABC’s part. The network doubled their usual political coverage ratings and got to keep airing Batman and Bewitched in prime time—thus saving money and making money at the same time.
As much as the other guys dismissed the plan heading into ’68, no American network ever covered a political convention gavel to gavel again.
It could be argued that Buckley and Gore also begat all the pundits and talking heads that followed. Neville and Gordon draw that connection at the end of the documentary as images of Bill O’Reilly duking it out with Jon Stewart and others fill the screen.
What the documentary also shows is why Buckley and Gore were so watchable on TV. As much as they snarked and postured, they always appeared to say exactly what they thought. They were free thinkers. There was never any doubt that what they said came straight from their own convictions.
Try finding that on a TV news network today.
For more on Buckley and Gore and “The Best of Enemies,” follow this link to this story I wrote about “Best of Enemies” for The Toronto Star.