The Revolution That Got Televised Gore Vidal, William Buckley, and how the great ideological cleavage got faces.

Buckley vs. Vidal: The Historic 1968 ABC News Debates

Introduction by Robert Gordon (2015, Devault-Graves) 190 pages with one photo

     1. “Drove My Chevy to the Levee …”

 

In 1968, ABC, the least critically regarded and the poorest of the three major networks, decided that it would not provide the standard “gavel-to-gavel” coverage, from late afternoon to around midnight, of the two major party presidential conventions. ABC simply could not afford to lose the advertising for their regular programming, even though the conventions would be taking place in August, usually the latter end of the summer rerun season when television viewership is typically low. ABC decided to offer a 90-minute wrap-up or summation of that day’s convention events which would include a segment called “A Second Look,” hosted by anchorman Howard K. Smith, and featuring commentary by conservative public intellectual and magazine publisher William F. Buckley and liberal/leftist public intellectual, Hollywood screenwriter, and novelist Gore Vidal. The confrontation between Vidal and Buckley established a template for televised political exchanges in the future with shows like Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group, the political debate program hosted by the late John McLaughlin. In some ways Buckley’s own interview show, Firing Line, which premiered in 1966, and presented Buckley, frequently in an adversative or skeptical posture, interviewing liberal or leftist guests, was also a model for the Buckley/Vidal showdown.

But the Buckley/Vidal debates were also path-breaking because of a memorable exchange between the two men during the penultimate debate, on August 28, during the chaotic Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Both men and the entire nation had endured scenes on the television news of Chicago police battling and beating leftist protestors in the parks and streets of the city in what amounted almost to a war of excessive provocation on the one hand and unjustified brutal force on the other. In June, New York Democrat Senator Robert Kennedy, running for his party’s presidential nomination, was assassinated immediately after winning the primary in California. He was running to left of establishment liberal candidate Hubert Humphrey, the sitting vice president who was running only because President Lyndon Johnson was forced out of the race because of his unpopularity with his party’s base because of his unsuccessful prosecution of the Vietnam War. But Kennedy was running to the right of or at least as a pragmatic alternative to, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, an avowed anti-war liberal. A few months earlier, in April, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, nearly a year to the day after he had given his anti-Vietnam War speech at Riverside Church that wound up fracturing the civil rights movement between those who supported Lyndon Johnson (because the historic domestic liberal initiatives) and those who did not (because of the war). Nineteen sixty-eight was the year of the rise of the New Left, the seizure of college administration buildings amidst demands to end the war, ban military recruiting on campus, throw out ROTC, and institute Black Studies. The only other war was that divided the nation as much as the Vietnam War was the Civil War. The urban riots that ensued following King’s death were some of the worst in U.S. history.

Buckley, who began the debates without any preparation, much to his vexation when he discovered how Vidal wanted to attack him instead of presenting a side in a debate, could never quite get his footing. But he wanted to vanquish Vidal in no uncertain terms.

It was against this background that both the Republican and Democratic conventions took place but it was the Chicago gathering of Democrats that was far more disorderly and violent. The previous nine debates between Buckley and Vidal had been bitter feuds, not even, in many respects, useful debates because of their intense hatred for one another. Vidal had been baiting Buckley throughout the debates because he was determined to expose the famed right-winger as an intellectual fraud, a vapid poseur. He did extensively research Buckley beforehand.  Buckley, who began the debates without any preparation, much to his vexation when he discovered how Vidal wanted to attack him instead of presenting a side in a debate, could never quite get his footing. But he wanted to vanquish Vidal in no uncertain terms. The notorious exchange was:

 

 

Vidal: There are many people in the United States [who] happen to believe that the United States’ policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago that is too bad … I assume that the point of American democracy is you can express any point of view you want …

Buckley: (garbled)

Vidal: Shut up a minute.

 

Buckley: No, I won’t.  Some people are pro-Nazi and the answer is that they were well-treated by people who ostracized them, and I am for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American marines and American soldiers.  I know you don’t care …

 

Vidal: As far as I am concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself, failing that, I would only say that we can’t have …

 Howard K. Smith: Let’s stop calling names …

 

Buckley: (Buckley loses his composure) Now listen, you queer.  Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face and you’ll stay plastered. 

 

Howard K. Smith: Gentlemen! Let’s not call names …

 

 

It may not have been the first time someone was called a “crypto-Nazi” or Nazi of any sort on network television but it was definitely the first time someone was called “a queer.”  The debates and this particular exchange were to haunt the two men for the rest of their lives, particularly Buckley, although Vidal subsequently returned to the subject of these debates many times. It eventually produced lawsuits with each man suing the other over what they wrote about their encounter. I was 16 when I was these debates in 1968. My sisters, staunch left-wing civil rights activists, watched because they wanted to see Vidal skewer Buckley.  (I had never heard of Vidal before the debate despite the fact that he had just published the best-selling sex parody Myra Breckinridge, one of the most outrageous novels of the 1960s. I had heard of Buckley because the news of his 1965 campaign for mayor of New York had filtered down to Philadelphia.)  My sisters and I gasped at first at the exchange but then we whooped that Vidal had made Buckley say something like that, so lose control of himself. “Vidal was just saying the truth. Buckley is a Nazi,” I remember one of my sisters saying. But actually that really was not right. Buckley, conservative as he was, was nobody’s Nazi and he was right to take at someone calling them that. No doubt, he had become increasingly sensitive on this point as he had been disturbed by demonstrators nightly outside his hotel and had heard everyone to the right of Fidel Castro called a fascist by rebels of the New Left. As he said just moments before his homophobic outburst:

 

One young man approached me, last night, and said, “Are you aware that Mayor Daley is a fascist?”—to which my reply was, “No, And if that is the case, why didn’t John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, whose favorite mayor he was, indict him as such, and teach us that we should all despise him as a fascist?”

 

The point is that policemen violate their obligations just the way politicians do.  (voice rises in anger) If we could all work up an equal sweat, and if you all would be obliging enough to have your cameras handy every time a politician commits demagogy or passes along graft or bribes, or every time a businessman cheats on his taxes, or every time a labor union beats up people who refuse to join his union—them maybe we could work up some kind of impartiality in resentment. As of this moment, I say: go after those cops who were guilty of unnecessary brutality [and] develop your doctrine of security sufficiently so that when you don’t have as many cops as you should have had—for instance, in Dallas, in November of 1963—you don’t [then] go and criticize the FBI for not having been there, for not having taken sufficient security measures.  But don’t do what’s happening here in Chicago tonight, which is to infer from individual and despicable acts of violence, a case for implicit totalitarianism in the American system.[1]

 

This seems a perfectly reasonable and intelligent statement but clearly made by someone who is frustrated by the left’s theater of name-calling passing itself off as meaningful political argument or even valid political criticism of the current American crisis. The fact that Buckley responded to Vidal’s calling him a “crypto Nazi” is not justified or excusable but hardly surprising. Actor Paul Newman was wrong in a way when he confronted Buckley afterward and told him what he had done was more or less unforgivable. Being called a Nazi “was purely political,” said Newman, “What you called him was personal!” (emphasis from “On Experiencing Gore Vidal”).  The point was that for Buckley being called a Nazi was just as personal, that what Newman was parsing was a distinction without a difference.

It may not have been the first time someone was called a “crypto-Nazi” or Nazi of any sort on network television but it was definitely the first time someone was called “a queer.”

On the other hand, Vidal was “a queer” but he did not take offense at that, as might be expected if such an exchange happened today. Vidal was proud that he provoked Buckley into saying that, not because he was after something so mundane as exposing Buckley’s homophobia, which in some sense was meaningless to Vidal as he could not possibly be affected by it, but rather that he was exposing Buckley’s completely untenable and ghastly provincial view of the world. For Vidal, exposing this view was tantamount to exposing Buckley as a Nazi. As Vidal wrote in his essay about the debates (“A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr.”) that appeared in the September 1969 issue of Esquire:

 

Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.  Notice I use the word “natural,” not normal.  Buckley likes the word normal.  It conjures up vigorous Minute Men with rifles shooting Commies, while their wives and little ones stay home stitching hoods. …

 

“The only pro crypto Nazi I know is you,” I said to Buckley on the night of August 28. He tells us that this so maddened him, he went to pieces with righteous anger.  Looking and sounding not unlike Hitler, but without the charm, he began to shriek insults in order to head me off, and succeeded, for by then my mission was accomplished: Buckley had revealed himself. …

 

Buckley is not of course a “pro crypto Nazi” in the sense that he is a secret member of the Nazi party . . . . But in a larger sense his views are very much those of the founders of the Third Reich who regarded blacks as inferiors, undeclared war as legitimate foreign policy, and the Jews as sympathetic to international communism. 

 

Three cheers for Vidal the secular, free-wheeling pansexual of the liberating 1960s. No cheers for Buckley the medieval, “uptight” Catholic swimming against the tide, “standing athwart history yelling stop” as the freight train of the bending arc of justice smashes him to pieces. Of course, things are never as simple as that. And ideological victories are rarely that clean.

 

2. “The Sharp Edge of Distinction”

 

As Buckley relates in his 15,000-word essay about the Vidal debates that appeared in Esquire in August 1969 (“On Experiencing Gore Vidal”), he never wanted Vidal as his opponent: “I asked a few mechanical questions [of ABC], and indicated it would probably work out, and then asked them who would be my adversary. They replied that he had not been selected, did I have any suggestions? I thought a while and gave them eight or ten names, among whom were some of the obvious people (Schlesinger, Galbraith, Mailer) and some a little less obvious (for instance, Al Lowenstein, Carey McWilliams, Jr.). Was there anyone at all I would refuse to appear alongside? I wouldn’t refuse to appear alongside any non-Communist, I said—as a matter of principle; but I didn’t want to appear opposite Gore Vidal (I said), because I had had unpleasant experiences with him in the past and did not trust him.” Television, looking for the most extreme and potentially explosive match-up, naturally got Vidal. The two men had debated twice before, on the David Susskind show Open End in 1962 and in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, that nominated Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. Buckley certainly held his own in both debates but there was a scarcely contained undercurrent of venomous dislike. No wonder ABC got Vidal again. It would make for good television if nothing else. But as Buckley relates the story, he should almost have expected this; he was nearly asking for such a set-up when he seriously answered the question of whom he would not consider debating. Anyone with any Brer Rabbit instincts knows the best way to avoid a match-up one does not want is to insist that that is the only match-up one will consider. If Buckley had said he wanted Vidal above all others, ABC would have gotten someone else. They surely would not get anyone Buckley himself suggested. It almost a certainty that the debates would not have had nearly the same cultural impact had anyone other than Vidal debated Buckley, no matter adversarial or brilliantly argued the debates may have been.

Buckley certainly held his own in both debates but there was a scarcely contained undercurrent of venomous dislike. No wonder ABC got Vidal again. It would make for good television if nothing else. But as Buckley relates the story, he should almost have expected this; he was nearly asking for such a set-up when he seriously answered the question of whom he would not consider debating.

Buckley and Vidal were doppelgangers; they were each other’s opposite because they were nearly identical twins in many respects, scions of wealthy families, exquisitely educated (although Vidal never went to college; Buckley’s first book was about his education at Yale). Both became well-known writers and polemicists; Vidal in some respects was the superior writer (clearly the superior novelist and probably the superior essayist too) but Buckley was the far more influential figure, heading a political movement through his magazine National Review that was instrumental in launching Young American for Freedom, the Draft Barry Goldwater movement, and such important conservative intellectuals as Whitaker Chambers, James Burnham, William Rusher, Frank Meyer, among others. He codified conservative thought by certifying some strains of this contradictory brew of libertarianism and traditionalism while casting out others like novelist/philosopher (or philosopher wannabe) Ayn Rand and the paranoid John Birch Society, un-kook-afying the right, as it were or at least as Buckley saw it. (Rand has remained far more vital Vidal could not be said to have left a movement in his wake or to have contributed significantly to the election of a president as Buckley did with Ronald Reagan. Both men ran for public office but Buckley’s run for mayor of New York is far more noteworthy than Vidal’s run for the House of Representatives in 1960 in upstate New York.  Of the two, Buckley was the more larger-than-life figure, although Vidal reveled in his celebrity status as much as Buckley did. Buckley was a man of considerable talents: an accomplished musician, a skilled sailor, a knowledgeable grammarian, a first-rate editor.

Buckley instituted a libel suit against Vidal and Esquire for $500,000 for the latter’s Esquire essay, a response to Buckley’s own that was published a month after Buckley’s. The particular portion in dispute was where Vidal said that Buckley’s views are much like those of the founders of the Third Reich (quoted above). Vidal sued Buckley but it was thrown out. Buckley won his suit in 1972 for a judgement of $115,000 from Esquire and a retraction. Buckley dropped his suit against Vidal, feeling that Vidal being forced to pay $75,000 in legal fees to defend himself in the suit. Buckley explained the reason for his lawsuit:

 

The philosophy behind the libel action is to make some minor historical contribution to the sanctity of the language.  If anybody can call anybody a Communist or a Nazi, then the mint of social intercourse is so debased that distinctions are lost.  If there’s no difference between Adolf Hitler and Joe McCarthy, then Adolf Hitler wasn’t that bad.  It isn’t simply a matter of Joe McCarthy absorbing the evil in Hitler, but also Hitler absorbs that which is non-Hitlerian in McCarthy, and eventually everybody is everything and you lose that sharp edge of distinction.  The people who ought to be most grateful to me are the people who want to keep august the evil of Adolf Hitler.”[2]

 

Did all of this come down to sex? Buckley began his long Esquire essay discussing how he was accused of “faggot logic” in a left-wing publication. Whatever the piece’s consideration of Buckley’s anti-George McGovern stance, what struck Buckley was “the killer word: ‘faggot.’”  “The warhead,” as he calls it. He notes many of the ads in the publication that feature requests for gay hookups, for gay models, for members for a gay film club. “Why is faggotry okay,” he writes, “but the imputation of it discreditable?” Clearly here he is referring to his calling Vidal a queer. “This is sophistical, to say the least,” Vidal responds, “When Buckley imputes faggotry to others, he means no compliment; nor were the liberal editors of the paper paying him a compliment by calling him a ‘faggot logician.’ Though Buckley is hardly a logician, he is ‘at his level’ a kind of syllogist, and this is what I think, he is trying to say: If liberals think faggotry okay and I call one of them a faggot, why is that wrong in their eyes since there is nothing wrong in being one?  Yet when they call me one, they imply there is something very wrong about being a faggot.” A question that coursed throughout Buckley’s career was whether he was secretly gay, a closeted gay. (Vidal may have been right that Buckley’s description of the gay ads was done with some bit of relish, secret enjoyment.)  Some thought his mannerisms could be nothing else but those of a gay man. Vidal argues in his essay that Buckley’s attack against him was in part an expression of the fear of being gay projected outwardly. Maybe Buckley’s attack was also, as Vidal suggested in his essay, a calculated attempt to prevent Vidal from reciting the story of how Buckley’s sisters vandalized an Episcopal church in 1944 because the minister’s wife sold one of the local homes to a Jewish lawyer. There was no question about the guilt of Buckley’s sisters and Buckley himself always seemed embarrassed about the incident and easily angered when it was publicly mentioned. Who can say?

Buckley vs. Vidal provides the complete transcriptions of the eleven 1968 debates between two men. The accompanying DVD documentary, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal is mildly informative yet a greater public service may have been performed had the documentary skipped the talking heads, the contextualizing and the psychoanalyzing and simply given the viewer the eleven debates unedited and uncommented upon. I would have much preferred that.

[1] “While Buckley would later privately describe Chicago’s Mayor Daley as a Fascist, he was not willing to let Vidal use the police to vindicate the demonstrators, who, in Buckley’s mind, had provoked much of the violence.”  John B. Judis, William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 291.

[2] Quoted in Charles Lam Markmann, The Buckleys: A Family Examined (New York: William Morrow, 1973), pp. 274-275

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