October 11, 2016
“The Best of Enemies” documentary, which explores a televised series of debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., will be screened 7-9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at Johnson State College. The screening takes place in 207 Bentley Hall and is free and open to the public. It will be followed by a panel discussion and question-and-answer session.
The film focuses on 10 debates between the late writer Vidal and the late writer and commentator Buckley during the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 1968. The debates, aired on ABC, were full of arguments and insults that improved the network’s flagging ratings and made a lasting impression on public discourse. Live, unscripted and rowdy, the men raised their voices, cursed and hurled insults at each other as they discussed national policies. In one debate, Buckley calls Vidal a “queer” and threatens to punch him in the face, and Vidal tells Buckley to “shut up.”
Those debates, combined with media deregulation of the ’80s, gave rise to our contentious political climate and voices Like Trump’s, says JSC political science professor David Plazek.
“The debates were infamous, essentially pitting liberalism against conservatism. Buckley called Vidal a communist. Vidal called Buckley a fascist,” he says. “Buckley was famous for taking conservative philosophy out of the realm of conspiracy thinking…to a higher level of discourse. He took on many thinkers, not just Gore Vidal. Considering the level of the debate we’re getting from the right these days, he’d be rolling over in his grave.”
The debates took place during a particularly restless, uncivil era in America, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and Cold War. Conservatives were distraught about communism. Liberals were angry about the assassinations in ’68 of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
“Back then, we were really going through some tumultuous times on so many levels,” Plazek says. “The debates were representative of the divisions within politics and the intensity of the politics of the day…. They were the initiation of the culture wars which we are still fighting to this day — a precursor of what was to come.”
What was to come was the start of televised debates between liberals and conservatives on such programs as CNN’s “Crossfire,” with co-hosts who included Robert Novak and Michael Kinsley. Plazek calls this “the modern era of shouting at each other on cable television. Whoever shouts the loudest is correct.”
The Buckley-Vidal debates “helped set the stage for raucous media,” he notes. “When people ask me how did Donald Trump happen, I tell them: 20 years of Fox News and 25 years of Rush Limbaugh, and this is what you get.” Along with CNN, “They have created a fertile ground for this type of candidate,” Plazek says. “So much of the right has become conspiracy fantasy rather than reality-based, and Trump represents that.”
Is a time of more civil public discourse ever possible again? Maybe — but it would require revisiting regulation of the news media and possibly reestablishing a measure such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, according to Plazek. That policy regulated broadcast media to ensure that news outlets presented contrasting sides for accurate, balanced coverage of controversial issues that were in the public interest.
The doctrine, eliminated in the ’80s, held that for views presented in public discourse, “If it was demonstrably incorrect, they didn’t belong there or t deserve a seat at the table,” Plazek says. “People were shut out if they were kooks. We replaced it with, now you give an opposing viewpoint even if that opposing viewpoint is total nonsense.”
Buckley and Vidal had angry debates, but their views generally came from intellectual pursuit and serious reflection, not pure hype, he says. “Trump is a product of the post-Fairness Doctrine world…You legitimize the crazies by giving them a seat at the table,” Plazek says. “The deregulation of the media is a part of this media story. It enabled a person like Trump to be where he is today.”
The screening of “Best of Enemies” at Johnson State is a collaboration among JSC, Vermont PBS and the PBS-affiliated Indie Lens Pop-Up. For more information about the film, visit www.magpictures.com/BestOfEnemies.