REVIEW: Best of Enemies

17 08 2015

Best of EnemiesMorgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s “Best of Enemies” invites you to remember a different era, the 1960s.  While one could dub this decade a crisis of authority, as my AP US History textbook did, it certainly had its advantages. At this moment in history, people actually trusted their network news anchors to tell the truth (cough, Brian Williams) and clashing pundits drove ratings by the threat of violence, not its actual exercise (ahem, Bill O’Reilly).

Many of these ills we now associate with television news started in the events Neville and Gordon document: the 1968 debates between conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. and liberal icon Gore Vidal.  These men were not running for president themselves and had only marginal ties to electoral politics.  The flailing network ABC just could not keep up with the juggernauts CBS and NBC, so they resorted to using Buckley and Vidal as a sideshow to get some attention. Their snide side chatter, however, quickly became the center of the conversation.

These two well-spoken gents do more than trade spars and jabs. They stand for more than themselves because they can fully articulate the central tenets of their respective ideological movement’s very essence. And ideology is culture, states one interviewee.  So wonder when the shot heard ’round the world in culture wars took place? Neville and Morgan would have us believe it was on the half-moon stage with Buckley and Vidal.

“Best of Enemies” is at, well, its best when focusing on their butting heads – not the heads doing the butting. Buckley and Vidal are interesting figures in their own right, but they just go better together in the same way that salt and pepper shakers should never be separated. Listening to Buckley and Vidal recalls the kind of academic banter tossed about between professorial colleagues … until, of course, it detours into petty squabbling.

(Their closest modern counterparts are Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart, although those two play on such different playing fields that they almost fail to respond adequately to the other.)

And beyond just who is saying these things, “Best of Enemies” also reminds us that what they are saying is worth our attention. The United States still fights the same battles and hashes out versions of the same conversation between Buckley and Vidal. The tensions in the 1960s surrounding the supposed gains of black Americans to the detriment of the white middle class are remarkably similar to the same resentments Donald Trump frequently exploits in his rhetoric around Hispanics.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  B / 2halfstars

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