Media Mastery Lessons from The Best of Enemies
By George Merlis
Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., founder/editor of the National Review, and liberal iconoclast Gore Vidal, author, essayist, playwright and activist, had a long-running bitter, feud. “The Best of Enemies” an excellent documentary from Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville compellingly tells the story of that feud. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 31 and around the rest of the country in the following weeks. It is entertaining, informative and I highly recommend it. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film and a fair amount of that interview helps supply the story’s narrative thread.)
The Buckley-Vidal feud reached a dramatic climax on August 28, 1968 in an ABC News debate during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” to which Buckley, who had served in the Army in the closing days of World War II, responded: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your Goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” (After the fact, Vidal said he had meant to say “crypto-fascist,” but “crypto-Nazi” slipped out instead. I’m not sure that “crypto-fascist” would have had any less impact on a veteran of the World War II era, but “crypto-Nazi” was guaranteed to be a red flag.)
I worked for ABC News at the time and, in those days before I became a news producer, my assignment was to publicize the Buckley and Vidal debates. Buckley declined to cooperate, remaining aloof from the press. Vidal, whose controversial best-selling novel “Myra Breckenridge,” was just out in paperback, was only too happy to engage the media wherever and whenever he could. As a result, I spent many hours during both conventions with Vidal and got to know him and his techniques for media mastery. Here are three lessons we can learn from Vidal’s approach.
First lesson: have an agenda. The GOP Convention was held first, in Miami Beach. Vidal came there with two well-defined agendas: demolish Buckley and promote his book. Vidal’s wanted to expose Buckley as a right-wing ideologue and discredit his magazine, The National Review, for printing factually-challenged articles. His more commercial goal was to increase sales of the paperback edition of “Myra Breckenridge.”
I had almost no contact with Buckley — by his choice — so I’m not sure that he had specific agenda points in mind. His performance at the GOP convention led me to believe he was there principally to belittle Vidal and to promote Richard Nixon’s candidacy.
In attempting to denigrate Vidal, Buckley unwittingly served Vidal’s commercial agenda. He frequently exploded in righteous indignation about Vidal’s“ obscene” or “pornographic” book. For Buckley, calling Vidal a pornographer, was criticism. For Vidal, it was a marketing opportunity. Every time Buckley attacked the sexual content of “Myra Breckenridge” Vidal smiled slyly, no doubt imagining the ka-ching of thousands of book store cash registers.
On the other hand, Vidal attacked The National Review repeatedly without ever naming it, referring instead to “that rag whose name will never pass my lips.”
Second lesson: be prepared. At the first convention, Gore Vidal was the Boy Scout — he was prepared. He had hired a researcher who combed through back editions of The National Review seeking inaccurate stories and editorials based on false premises. The researcher also investigated Buckley, himself, and even his parents and siblings, but Vidal held off using his most damaging Buckley family findings until it was too late. (More on that later.)
According to director Morgan Neville, Buckley showed up in Miami with little or no research. Perhaps he thought that his facility with language, his innate intelligence and his wit were a match for Vidal. In addition to being ill-prepared, Buckley was in pain and further handicapped himself by his travel arrangements. Sometime before the Miami convention, he broke his collar bone and it had not yet healed. Also, he elected to sail from Connecticut to Miami — a trip that, in those pre-internet, pre-cell phone days, meant he was out of touch with news developments for long stretches at a time.
By the time the Chicago Democratic convention rolled around, Buckley had seen the light and came to town accompanied by a researcher and armed with considerable material. (The “researcher” looked like a superannuated pugilist and may well have been a bodyguard.)
Third lesson: practice, practice, practice. Both debaters unleashed many a bon mot during their ten face-to-face encounters on ABC. I know for a fact that Vidal’s ad-libs were not spur-of-the-moment brilliance. Rather, they were polished gems. I saw him conceive, refine and rehearse many of them. In the press suite where he held court for hours at a time before supplicant reporters from wire services, radio stations and newspapers, Vidal came up with clever remarks which he sharpened in subsequent interviews and unleashed during debates with Buckley. Here is one: in an interview in Miami he was about Richard Nixon’s political philosophy. Vidal concluded Nixon’s philosophy was self interest. That night he used that concept on the air, having refined it to a soundbite: “Richard Nixon serves no political principle but his own self-interest.” (In his book, “Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal,” Michael Mewshaw makes clear this was a life-long practice of Vidal’s — come up with a quip or concept in one setting, refine it in subsequent settings and, finally, use it on in a book, essay or interview.)
Another example. A reporter asked Vidal if he thought “Myra Breckenridge” could be made into a movie and, if so, who should play the lead. Since the protagonist is a man who becomes a woman who then becomes a man again, the book presented significant casting challenges. Vidal thought for a moment and said, “Yes. And Bill Buckley should play Myra/Myron.” Later, on the air, when Buckley was fulminating against Vidal’s “pornographic” book, a grinning Vidal unleashed the casting suggestion adding words to the effect that Bill Buckley was, in fact, his model for Myra/Myron. This had the desired effect of simultaneously flustering Buckley and promoting the book. (Two years later a film version was released starring not William F. Buckley, Jr. but two actors: Raquel Welch as Myra and film critic Rex Reed as Myron. It was a critical and commercial disaster.)
The ultimate blow-up between the two came during their penultimate debate — on August 28. Those were tumultuous days in Chicago, with a convention spinning out of control and Mayor Daley’s police removing their badges and ID tags so they could beat demonstrators and use tear gas with reckless abandon. Tensions and emotions were high and Vidal, as he later wrote in Esquire, was going to unleash his heaviest ordinance against Buckley that night. He was going to paint Buckley as an anti-Semitic, fascist ideologue, but Vidal never got there because instead of calling his target a crypto-fascist, he said crypto-Nazi, which set Buckley off on his on-air homophobic slur-cum-threat.
It’s fortunate for Vidal that he did not tell the story, because the way he told it to me at the time was factually flawed and even his recounting of it in Esquire was incorrect. In short form the story is this: in Sharon. CT, where the Buckley family lived, a real estate agent sold a house or parcel to a Jewish family. The real estate agent’s husband was a Protestant minister and several of the Buckley children vandalized his church in retribution for the sale in the hitherto restricted town. The way Vidal told me the story, Buckley and his siblings vandalized a synagogue. Except, Sharon, CT had no synagogue, so had he told it on the air that way, it would have been inaccurate. The version Vidal recounted in Esquire had Buckley and his siblings vandalizing the realtor’s husband’s church. That was partially true. Several of Buckley’s siblings were brought up on juvenile charges for the desecration. Buckley, himself, at the time of the incident was over 18, so he would have been charged as an adult. But he was not charged. Moreover, he was in the Army at the time making it unlikely he would have been in Sharon to take part in the vandalism. I don’t know if Vidal’s research was faulty or he was expressing wishful thinking, but both versions — the one he was prepared to deliver on the air and the one he wrote in Esquire — were inaccurate. (The Esquire account resulted in a successful libel suit by Buckley against Vidal and the magazine.)
And that gives us a fourth media mastery lesson: vet your research.
You can see the trailer for “Best of Enemies here.
Theaters and film website can be found here.
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