Monday, February 1, 2016

The Great (And Not-So-Great) Debaters

A couple of months ago I watched this documentary on Netflix called "Best of Enemies" about the 1968 presidential convention debates between conservative writer William Buckley and liberal writer Gore Vidal.  I thought since it was about writers, why not watch it?  I wondered too if they would be like Siskel & Ebert who seemed like enemies a lot of the time but over time gained a grudging respect and admiration for each other.  Um, no, these guys hated each other to the bitter end, to the point that when Buckley died, Vidal wrote "RIP--in Hell."  Ouch.  And for at least 3 years they had a lawsuit accusing each other of libel, which was eventually settled by Esquire magazine.

You might wonder if this has any significance to modern life and it actually does.  These debates were pretty much the beginning of talking head debate shows you see everywhere:  CNN, Fox "News," MSNBC, PBS, and even ESPN.  There might have been shows like that beforehand but this was where networks found out that it could be lucrative to have guys with opposing viewpoints argue on live TV.

The genesis of the idea was that basically ABC was way behind NBC and CBS in news rankings.  They also didn't have as much money; their set on the Republican National Convention actually collapsed and to be hastily rebuilt.  So while the competition basically just filmed the entirety of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, ABC was only going to cover it in primetime and to fill some of the time, they brought in Buckley and Vidal.  Ostensibly they were supposed to talk about the events of the convention but they seemed to spend all their time talking about their opposing political views--and each other.

There were five debates during the Republican convention in Miami and people liked them so much that obviously they had to have five more during the Democratic convention in Chicago.  If you remember your 60s history, the Chicago convention was marred by protests and a brutal crackdown by the Chicago police.  That probably helped to fuel the drama of the debates so that in the ninth one Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-fascist" and Buckley in response called Vidal a "queer" and threatened to punch him.  Which really it would have been hilarious to see these two middle-aged writers who both talked like Thurston Howell III of Gilligan's Island fame going at each other.  Sadly we were denied that and now they're both dead.

It was pretty obvious from at least what the movie showed that Vidal was trying to wind Buckley up to get just that kind of reaction.  Instead of worrying about the conventions, they were both were more interested in discrediting each other, which if you think about it is not unlike most Internet flame wars I've been involved in.

But the only problem with Internet flame wars is you can provoke a Jay Greenstein or Andrew Leon but you can't make them explode like Buckley for the simple reason that it's not happening live.  So no matter how much you might rankle them or rile them, they have all the time in the world to recover.  Let's face it, that's why Internet arguments in general fail:  each side all the time in the world to recover emotionally, to dig up facts, and only has to respond to what they want to respond to.  And if they so chose, it's easy enough just to walk away.  Thus you don't really get the "Gotcha!" moment you can get in a live debate.

That doesn't stop us from trying, does it?

Though as the documentary pointed out while Buckley lost the battle, Vidal in the end lost the war.  Not only did Nixon win the election, Buckley's best bud Reagan won the presidency 12 years later while extolling most of the virtues Buckley put forth.

Anyway, there's some food for thought the next time you get sucked into a flame war on Blogger or Facebook or something, which probably happens to other people far less than it happens to me.


  1. Most people will never admit their wrong no matter what sort of logic is put in front of them. However, people do love to watch the conflict.

  2. I heard about this on NPR. It was very interesting then and interesting to hear your take on it.

  3. I'm familiar with Gore Vidal but not so much with William Buckley. The fight between them seems to be interesting, too bad I don't have Netflix, is that documentary available somewhere else?

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  5. I did speech and debate in high school and college, and then coached it as a teacher. Those who can think quickly on their feet and who know their stuff win every time. When it comes to internet flame wars, even idiots stumble on something they find online to support their argument.



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