Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
"Best of Enemies": William F. Buckley Jr. gets agitated with Gore Vidal during their heated debates on ABC in 1968.
"Best of Enemies" is smart, insightful, thought-provoking and wildly entertaining. Coming on the heels of the Donald Trump-Megyn Kelly dust-up in the wake of last week's GOP debate, it's also timely and relevant.
Directed by Morgan Neville (an Oscar-winner for "Twenty Feet From Stardom") and Robert Gordon, "Best of Enemies" chronicles the loquacious debaters during the Republican and Democratic national conventions in Miami and Chicago in the summer of 1968.
Dead last in what was then a three-network race, budget-strained ABC reached for a combination ratings gimmick and time-filler. Instead of the gavel-to-gavel coverage helmed by CBS' Walter Cronkite, or NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, ABC offered limited nightly coverage with a twist: 15 minutes of Buckley and Vidal squaring off.
The two were supposed to weigh in on the various platforms and candidates, but mostly engaged in a free-for-all -- albeit an exceedingly well-spoken one -- of personal and ideological attacks. In other words, it was great television.
Both men were gifted orators with larger-than-life personalities. But they were also archetypes of what we are trained to dislike: pompous, intellectual elitists perpetually looking down their snooty noses at the rest of us.
Buckley, father of the modern conservative movement, inspired Ronald Reagan's political beliefs. He founded and edited the National Review, and for 30 years made mincemeat of his guests (at least those who disagreed with him) on his TV show "Firing Line."
A hawk on the Vietnam War, Buckley ceaselessly pushed the right-wing agenda. He was the original Fox News, only smarter and funnier.
Vidal, equally bright and witty, pushed a liberal agenda and, through his books, essays and quips, championed homosexuality, bisexuality and, in his fictional character Myra Breckinridge, pansexuality. He argued that most Americans, let alone politicians, were power-hungry beings willing to sell their souls. "We are all prostitutes, in one sense or another," he said.
Vidal clearly is baiting Buckley throughout the debates. And for once, Buckley is stumped because he has met his intellectual equal (on live TV, no less).
The most famous eruption occurred during the riot-filled Democratic convention in Chicago, when Vidal accused Buckley of being a "crypto-Nazi." A volcanic Buckley shot back, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddam face and you'll stay plastered!" (Lawsuits and countersuits followed.)
Neville and Gordon are excellent storytellers. In addition to the priceless debate moments, they inject extensive archival footage and commentary from a cavalcade of savvy observers, including Andrew Sullivan, Frank Rich, Dick Cavett, Brooke Gladstone and the late Christopher Hitchens. (Buckley died in 2008 at age 82; Vidal was 86 when he died in 2012.)
"Best of Enemies" is also an intriguing glimpse at the political landscape in the most volatile year of the volatile 1960s (Richard Nixon went on to defeat Hubert Humphrey in November), and the state of TV news when there were only three networks. The directors argue briefly and not especially convincingly that the Buckley-Vidal firestorm gave birth to the nasty split-screen screeching of today's cable news.
I can't change channels fast enough when talking heads launch into their predictable political patter. The contrast in "Best of Enemies" is not that Buckley and Vidal took the high road. It's just that they were so darn eloquent down on the low road.
Everything you need to know about conservatives and civil rights
Remembering the night William F. Buckley took his genteel racism to Cambridge--and left destroyed by James Baldwin
With the challenges of the civil rights movement sparking worldwide discussion about the importance of individual rights and the limitations of tradition, the students of the Cambridge Union Society dreamed up a humdinger of an event to celebrate their one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in February 1965. Coming in the throes of the civil rights movement, when the hopefulness of the early movement had yet to give way to the more violent reactions of the latter half, the students thought a debate between James Baldwin, the most articulate voice emerging from black America, and William F. Buckley, Jr., the most persuasive conservative, would draw a significant amount of attention. They were right. More than seven hundred students showed up, filling every seat. An overflow room set up to pipe in the debate also filled quickly. The only black face in the audience was that of Baldwin’s friend, Sidney Poitier. The rest were white students from Cambridge, sitting alongside numerous reporters, including one from the New York Times, which would print the debate almost in its entirety a few weeks later.1 The proposition under consideration was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”
For Buckley, who had long opposed the civil rights movement, it seemed to be a perfect venue for him to explain his position. It was a formal affair at tux-and-tails Cambridge, away from the hot emotions in America, and he knew well the rules of collegiate debate: wear formal attire instead of a business suit (as Baldwin wore); answer only the questions from the audience you want to answer and skip over the rest (Baldwin seemed ruffled at being interrupted); and address the president of the Union instead of the entire audience (a deficiency that actually may have helped Baldwin).
But knowing the rules gets you only so far. Sometimes you simply can’t win an argument if your ideas are worse than your opponent’s. And with the help of some tactical nudging from Baldwin, it didn’t take long for Buckley’s shoddy ideas about race to come unmasked.
National Review had come of age alongside the civil rights movement, having published its first issue a year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools and two weeks before the arrest of Rosa Parks. From the beginning, National Review could have endorsed the traditionalist notion that changes should come slowly within a society but should happen nonetheless, and that the rule of law need be respected above all else. Or it could have taken a libertarian stance that the state shouldn’t be in the business of segregating people at all.
But it didn’t take either of these paths. Instead, it fomented a direct assault against civil rights, embracing nearly all of the most offensive and discredited arguments against the movement, including the idea that black people were inherently inferior to white people. It routinely dressed up the racist resistance to civil rights with respectable-sounding arguments about states’ rights and constitutional law. As a signal crafter of conservative talking points in the midcentury years, throughout the 1950s and 1960s National Review developed arguments to oppose every motion in favor of civil rights, indiscriminately using sometimes contradictory ideas in order to pursue a single goal: the continued subjugation of America’s black people.
Buckley himself had developed two arguments against civil rights, both of which were little more than disguised racism, both of which led the line at National Review. The first emerged early in his career. Since the 1950s, Buckley had argued that civil rights should be opposed not because black people were biologically inferior to white people, but because they were not yet “civilized” enough to take part in democratic government. Or, as Buckley put it in 1959, “There are no scientific grounds for assuming congenital Negro disabilities. The problem is not biological, but cultural and educational.”
This “lack of civilization” argument has a long pedigree dating back to the country’s earliest thinkers on the subject, including Thomas Jefferson. Even some black leaders, like Booker T. Washington, expounded on the idea, if with different motives. In the 1950s and 1960s, the argument pushed Buckley in surprising directions. After repeated questioning, he was sometimes forced to admit that, in his view, all uneducated people, black, white, brown, red, or yellow, should not be allowed to vote if they didn’t pass some sort of competency test. This was an undemocratic stance to say the least, but at least it was consistent with his idea that only “civilized” people should rule.
As he pushed this line of thought in the pages of National Review, Buckley argued that no one knew what levels of education should be mandatory to participate in a democracy better than local arbiters. Thus, for Buckley, the federal government had no business declaring equal access when it couldn’t differentiate between uneducated black people in Alabama and black graduates of Harvard. The federal government should butt out; states should decide. If Massachusetts wanted to limit the franchise based on an IQ test, that should be its prerogative.
Of course, no one in Massachusetts was advocating restrictions on voting rights for uneducated white people, and thus Buckley’s argument displayed a willful ignorance about the abuses that had taken place throughout the South during the previous one hundred years, when literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses kept the vast majority of black people from voting. Nevertheless, Buckley relied on this states’ rights argument for much the rest of his life. Buckley’s reaction to Brown, for example, was that it was “one of the most brazen acts of judicial usurpation in our history, patently counter to the intent of the Constitution, shoddy and illegal in analysis, and invalid in sociology.” He later added, “Support for the Southern position rests not at all on the question of whether Negro and White children should, in fact, study geography side by side, but on whether a central or a local authority should make that decision.”
He didn’t stop there. In 1957, Buckley wrote National Review’s most infamous editorial, entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Is the white community in the South, he asked, “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?” His answer was crystal clear: “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Buckley cited unfounded statistics demonstrating the superiority of white over black, and concluded that, “it is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” He added definitively: “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”
And what method should be used to enforce the maintenance of “civilized standards”? According to Buckley, it should be a no-holds-barred defense, even including violence. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical [white] minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.”
In other words, it was up to the white community to decide when violence was appropriate. Through its White Citizens’ Councils, the resurgence of the Klan, and the general refusal to prosecute crimes committed against black Southerners, by the 1960s the white South had made its decision. And rather than condemn it, Buckley stayed the course. In 1958, National Review printed a cutting article on the black politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., entitled, “The Jig Is Up.” Buckley professed not to know the racial connotations of the word “jig.” In his 1959 book, Up From Liberalism, Buckley responded to an African nationalist, saying, “Your people, sir, are not ready to rule themselves. Democracy, to be successful, must be practiced by politically mature people among whom there is a consensus on the meaning of life within their society.” In his next breath, Buckley turned to American civil rights leaders, saying, “In the South, the white community is entitled to put forward a claim to prevail politically because, for the time being anyway, the leaders of American civilization are white—as one would certainly expect given their preternatural advantages, of tradition, training, and economic status.”
In a 1961 article in the nationally prominent Saturday Review, Buckley answered the titular question of “Desegregation: Will It Work?” with his first, all-capitalized word: “NO.” His rationale? For it to do so would require the dramatic intervention of the federal government, and conservatives should always oppose such an occurrence. Meanwhile, things weren’t so bad in the South, he said. Martin Luther King, Jr., was simply “more sensitive, and so more bitter, than the average Southern Negro, and hence unqualified as a litmus of the Southern Negro’s discontent.” Meanwhile, Buckley allowed two open racists, sociologist Ernest van den Haag and editor James J. Kilpatrick, to write long pieces on civil rights for National Review (it was a piece by van den Haag called “Negroes, Intelligence & Prejudice” on which Buckley had asked Mailer to comment in 1964). Both van den Haag and Kilpatrick became the magazine’s authorities on the matter.
“My position on the moral aspect of segregation,” Buckley wrote to a sixteen-year-old correspondent in 1964, is that “[s]egregation is morally wrong if it expresses or implies any invidious view of a race, not so if it intends or implies no such thing,” and in the South in 1964, despite all the images of dogs attacking black children, of violence against black citizens seeking to vote, of hatred bubbling up against black students enrolling in schools, Buckley didn’t think there was much racism in the South. He saw such images as simply an effort to preserve civilization. “It is for each man’s conscience to decide in the specific case whether segregation is being practiced morally or immorally,” he said. It was, once more, an example of Buckley using sophisticated language to endorse the brutalities of segregation.
If Buckley’s first argument against civil rights sounded good to white Southerners worried about the erosion of their long-standing privilege in the South, his second argument, which he developed only in 1964 and 1965, helped lure Northern whites to his cause. This second argument might be called the bootstraps argument. Its premise was that generation after generation of white immigrants had come to the United States and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, working hard to give their children a good education, pushing the next generation into jobs and careers that ensured success. Why were African Americans the exception? Might there be something within the black community that prevented it from rising up, too?
As with his “not yet civilized” argument, there was more than a little willful ignorance here. The argument ignored the enormous structural inhibitions to black achievement, including the deliberate underfunding of schools in black neighborhoods (North and South), the devaluing of homes in black sections of towns (especially in the North), and the denial of benefits and promotions that had long been a primary way white immigrants had risen to middle-class status (especially in Northern-based unions and via the GI Bill). It was exactly these things that President Johnson was referring to in his 1965 speech promoting affirmative action when he said, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
Despite Johnson’s counterargument, Buckley knew working-class white people in the North were concerned about the decay of their cities and sensed that black people were recipients of special benefits solely because of their color. For them, the bootstraps argument had appeal. If their families had worked hard to succeed, why hadn’t the same things happened for black people? The structural inhibitions to achievement were often hard to see.
It’s unclear why Buckley took the anti–civil rights stance he did, especially because there were good conservative arguments in support of civil rights. Traditionalists, of course, privileged the right of law, which, after the Brown decision in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, clearly outlawed segregation. Libertarians, meanwhile, argued that the government should not be creating or upholding laws that tell people whom they can or cannot sit next to—in fact, quite the opposite. Indeed, in 1956, three short pieces arguing as much appeared in National Review. If black people in Alabama wanted to create their own all-black bus system in order to oppose the discriminatory public bus system, the pieces argued in good libertarian prose, they should be allowed to do so.
A scene from the documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.”
When Gore Vidal declared in an old television debate with William F. Buckley Jr. that 5 percent of Americans had 20 percent of the income and the bottom 20 percent had 5 percent, he was raising an alarm. That observation may be the most shocking moment in “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” Nicholas Wrathall’s admiring documentary portrait of Vidal, who died in 2012 at 86.
Why shocking? It illustrates the astounding degree to which perceptions have changed over time. By the standards of today, when income inequality has widened exponentially and the middle class is shrinking, statistics that infuriated Vidal sound like the answer to a socialist’s prayer.
Intellectual celebrities nowadays eschew the lofty, disdainful tones affected by Vidal and Buckley, his conservative opponent, who died in 2008. Public discourse is louder, angrier and coarser. No liberal of comparable eloquence has taken Vidal’s place in the public square, although Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, deemed himself Vidal’s heir apparent, until the two men had a falling out.
“Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” a documentary, provides an admiring portrait of this stubbornly liberal author. CreditIFC Films
Heavily seasoned with epigrams worthy of Oscar Wilde, this entertaining documentary portrays Vidal as a pessimistic political prophet with streaks of paranoia and misanthropy, but a truth teller nonetheless. In carefully selected excerpts from interviews and conversations conducted during all phases of his career, he exudes a patrician hauteur fed by a reservoir of chilly rage. For this champion of democracy and freedom of speech was an aristocrat who blamed many of America’s blunders on the short memory, or “amnesia” span, of the body politic.
“Envy is the central fact of American life” is a typically acute remark from a man whose default attitude was a lofty contempt. It must be said that Vidal, an avid student of history, was better informed than most people and had a sweeping global perspective.
The film opens with an image of Vidal, cane at his side, sitting on the tomb in which he will be buried. What follows is a thorough, skillfully assembled chronology of the life and times of this all-around man of letters and public gadfly whose historical novels are widely regarded as his finest achievements.
Born into a well-connected political family, Vidal attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, then joined the Army and plunged into a writing career. His grandfather, whom he idolized, was a blind senator from Oklahoma; his father, a director of air commerce for Franklin D. Roosevelt, taught him to fly at the age of 10.
Vidal’s first novel, “Williwaw,” was published when he was 19. “The City and the Pillar,” which dealt frankly with homosexuality when the subject was taboo, was a best seller. He later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, particularly The New York Times, had blacklisted him because of the book. He turned his energies to writing for the theater (“The Best Man”) and the movies (“Ben Hur”).
INTERESTING AND PROVOCATIVEAs Mr. Vidal expresses his disdain for our American empire, he somehow ignores the rest of the world. He seems to...
The documentary only glosses his private life, which is thoroughly dissected in Tim Teeman’s recently published book, “In Bed With Gore Vidal.” Vidal’s radical theories about sexuality, which earned him a fan letter from Dr. Alfred Kinsey, are mentioned briefly. The success of his comic transgender novel, “Myra Breckinridge,” which landed him on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Look and Life magazines, is noted, but the book’s vision not analyzed.
The film warmly acknowledges Vidal’s relationship with Howard Auster, with whom he had a domestic partnership for 53 years, until Auster’s death in 2003. The saddest moments show Vidal’s departure from the gorgeous cliffside house they shared in Ravello, Italy.
The meat of the film consists of Vidal’s gloomy thoughts on American history and politics and his conviction that the United States had metamorphosed from a republic into an empire in the thrall of imperialist grandiosity. His estimation of other politicians is devastating: John F. Kennedy was charming and an inspiring speaker but a poor leader who dragged us into Vietnam; Ronald Reagan was “the best cue card reader they could find”; and George W. Bush was a “fool.” About American involvement in the Middle East, he said: “What we’ve done is unite the Muslim world. We’ve made a lot of trouble for ourselves. This is only the beginning, and we will wish we had not done it.”
Asked what he thought his legacy might be, Vidal replies in a tone of withering indifference, “I couldn’t care less.”