The Great Debate
by Robert Gordon
March 12, 2019
This interview with Robert Gordon, director and producer of Best of Enemies, a behind-the-scenes account of the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., was conducted and condensed by frank news.
We're spending the month talking about American political debate. The Vidal / Buckley debates are such a huge part of that history. The film you made tells that story really well. What compelled you to make it?
My friend in Memphis named Tom Graves had gotten ahold of copies of some of the debates. I knew about these debates from childhood, but I had forgotten about them. When Tom shared them with me I immediately saw it as a documentary because of the inherent drama, honestly.
Two types of intellectual thought from opposing positions, dividing their time between hashing out the issues of the day, and calling each other names.
What’s not to love as a filmmaker?
It’s so fun to watch. What surprised you about debate after spending so much time with this material?
What I came away with, that most surprised me is probably this thing that first attracted me as well, which is that even these guys, as cultured as they were, as educated as they were, couldn't behave well around each other. It seemed to me a really good metaphor for the present political system. That was when I got the idea in 2010. I thought oh great, this is such an obviously great idea, I'll get funded immediately and have it out for the 2012 election – because the nation will never get more divided than this, I thought, in 2012. I partnered with Morgan Neville, whom I'd worked with before, and it took us four years to get funding. We got it out in time for the 2016 elections.
It's even more timely, unfortunately. It became even more relevant. ABC did this in a desperate move to cover the DNC.
It being so wildly successful then became the birth of punditry as we know it. Do you feel there’s a difference to the depth of debate between then and now?
It was put on because it was cheap. In a way that really anticipates reality TV. Reality TV has become very popular, it's very cheap compared to other things. Putting two guys on live TV and having them talk was much cheaper than losing advertisement.
Here was the difference. In 1968 ABC was a borderline successful operation and it could not afford to lose the advertising income of the day that normal coverage would have meant. Normal coverage was, you preempted all your programming and you showed this all day. There were only three networks and one educational network at the time. The other two networks devoted full day coverage to the conventions. ABC decided to reap the benefits of their advertising during the daytime and then in the evening present condensed coverage. Part of that coverage would be analysis made by these two guys [Vidal and Buckley].
I don't know what the truth is, but each one of them believed that ABC came to them first and each one of them said to ABC, “I'll do it with anybody, but not the other guy.” Vidal said he didn't want to do it with Buckley, Buckley didn't want to do it with Vidal. So, of course ABC went to the nemesis immediately and made arrangements. We found correspondence where ABC said we're going to hope that there's sparks. I think there was an interview with one of the producers who said, yeah we're going to put these guys out there and hope there's some sparks. They didn't know what was going on. ABC saw the tension between the two men increase night after night after night, and for the first half of that thought this is is great, great, great. For the second half, started going God, I hope they'll reign it in.
They don't. And it explodes. Which turns out to be really good for ABC.
They got a lot of coverage and their style of coverage changed the way the networks presented conventions thereafter. Introducing this kind of point, counter-point analysis as a national forum. It introduced the cable news model.
It's really crazy how that model took off.
Yeah it's amazing. That it was all packed into that. When we set out, we did not know the backstory about ABC and this being a desperate move. In narrative film, you write the script, and then you go shoot what's written. In documentary you shoot everything and then you figure out what the story is.
And that's the beauty of what happened here. Our film changed as we got into it and learned more. As a filmmaker, you have to keep your eyes open for how the narrative is revealing itself.
What a dynamic thing to find.
When you sat with the footage, you watched the exchange between the two of them multiple times, did you find that there was depth to their arguing? That it was educational beyond performance?
When we were working on this I developed a close relationship with the ABC archive, and I really pushed them hard to release the entire debates as a disk – as a package. They just didn't think there was interest. There's two and a half hours of debate. Our movie is only 90 minutes long and the debate probably occupies twenty-five or thirty minutes of screen time. What we could present had to be very cut down.
They did argue issues. I felt like we presented them arguing issues. Most people only remember them cutting each other down and going for the jugular.
They're public intellectuals, and they seem well-informed and their opinions seemed to be based in something, and they can defend them – which is different than preaching and screaming about an opinion.
That’s to say this format could still function if you found the right people. Or do you feel they were special and able to carry this because of who they were?
Because of these two guys and who they are, and because of how they felt about each other, it's a Gladiator's fight to the death, and we're all packed in the Colosseum.
It is intellectual, and I'll come back to that in a second, but it's also because they are unable to prevent the personal from informing their dialogue, it becomes like Morton Downey. There's a freak show element to Vidal and Buckley's personal engagement, that makes people rubber neck. It makes them stick around and watch.
The difference between them and Morton Downey's show is that in the course of their dialogue, most of the founding fathers are cited. They talk about pollution, and they talk about the economy, and they bring an educated informed position to it, and the political position to it.
There is a lot of content, but I can't emphasize enough that what I learned is that what gets people's attention is the cat fight.
I don't know which way it goes. Do people come for the intellect and stay for the cat-fighting? Or do they come for the cat-fighting and stay for the intellectual content?
It's definitely interesting now when there's so many options for the cat fight, and we're fatigued from watching it. There's no real space for listening and then actually rebutting. Do you feel like there's an appetite for high level debate?
Yes, and I think it's out there. It's out there on podcasts now. When we were doing the film, I hoped that some failing cable enterprise, to save it's operation, realized how inexpensive it was to present that kind of programming, and they would do it as a last ditch effort to stay on TV and then it would become popular. I think what's happened is that you get it in podcasts. You can order it as specialized as you want it.
I listen to the KCRW program Left, Right, and Center. I listen to the New York Times, The Argument. I hear people from both sides making intellectual and informed arguments in a civil manner. I think it exists.
On TV especially, the cult of personality gets in the way.
As soon as someone begins to become successful, as soon as they become noticeable, the system draws them to be more Howard Stern like, if you will. You're drawn to this base common denominator.
You asked about the first time I was watching this. I recall I was about four minutes into the first exchange and I just hit pause. I got up and got a dictionary. When you're making a film like this, you're committing to a solid year of your life, and in all probability it's almost three – this one was six! You want do something that you can learn from. Hell yeah I got the dictionary! One of the things I figured out Buckley did in debate, but I really parsed it with the help of Daniel Webster – is Buckley would use the most difficult word whenever possible. He was using them more as weaponry than as content. In the debate at one time he says, “axiomatic.” It's like, that's really not adding anything to the sentence or the point he's making. It's just to throw a javelin at the opponent.
He had a remarkable command of the English language, and he wasn't afraid to abuse it to win.
I wonder if that sort of conversation and language would push people away now? Is there hunger for programming that does exactly what it did to you, which is make you pause to get a dictionary?
The nation's coverage, at least in 2016, was taken as far from that as possible. But that doesn't mean there's not an audience. Our movie did almost a million dollars at the box office, and on the one hand I was ecstatic about that. On the other hand, I was a little bit disappointed. I kind of thought we would tap into a deeper vein in America.
I don't know what to tell you. It's on Netflix now, but I don't follow the stats to know what it's done there. It's hard to gauge how large the national desire is with that. Who are the characters who could do this? So many people are polarizing already. We're talking about a higher level of intellectual debate. Who is out there now that brings the classical knowledge these guys had? Who can quote Pericles? Who is going to quote Pericles, in your eight minutes between commercial breaks?
I got to interview Noam Chomsky once, and he said that the night he got asked to be on Nightline, the Nightline producer explained concision to him. Noam Chomsky said I'll never be on Nightline, because I won't give answers that can fit within the confines of their commercial restrictions.
It's such a fascinating world you got to live in for six years. That is, in a way, a gateway to the landscape we live in now.
The past is present, you know, it's an intersection where change was happening, you could still see the mountains behind you and you got a chance to see the ocean in front of you. Whereas now it's all so far from us.
Is there anything from this experience you wish you could see now?
It's funny because another thread of our story is the atomization of information source. The three networks controlled what you knew. Now, you can't tell truth from that. Something may look like a network, but it may actually be a maniac in his basement, and you don't know whether up is down or down is up.
I feel like the benefits of that are specialized podcasts. You can go dig as deep as you want into the pursuit you want, but the downside, which is perhaps more powerful, is that you give up your factual basis, your reality, your shared reality.
Do you think there's a way to mitigate that problem?
I would think that education would help. I would think that if we treated teachers like we treated movie stars, let's say we treated teachers 1/100th as well as we treated movie stars, that would be a way to help our nation.
Part of the way corporations have seized so much control, and part of the way the economic divide has occurred, is by inhibiting citizens ability to form questions, much less ask them.
The way out is to enhance education.