On October 14, 2004, Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s flagship shout-fest, Crossfire, in order to denounce it, accusing it of “doing theater” when it “should be doing debate.”
While it made for bracing viewing, Stewart’s wasn’t a particularly novel observation. After all, by 2004, most news and public affairs programs (Charlie Rose and the PBS Newshour are among the few honorable exceptions), especially those on cable television, had long since entered the realm of “infotainment.”
How did we get to this point?
The Best of Enemies, a rollicking new documentary about the series of televised debates between the journalist William F. Buckley and the novelist and essayist Gore Vidal—a longtime Nation contributing editor—during the 1968 political conventions, may provide us with some answers.
Nineteen sixty-eight was an annus horribilis in the life of the country. The American public, already riven by the war in Vietnam, was forced to absorb a series of shocks in very short order. On January 31, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive; on March 31, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection; on April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis; and on June 5 Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. All through the spring riots and protests rocked Washington, DC; Chicago; New York; Baltimore; Kansas City; Wilmington; and Louisville.
The Republican and Democratic National Conventions were to take place that summer in Miami and Chicago, respectively. Struggling in the ratings, ABC News decided to feature the famous controversialists William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during its nightly post-convention coverage.
Gore Vidal had been a public figure since the publication of his first novel, Williwaw, at the age of 19. A veteran of the Pacific campaign, Vidal cut a controversial figure on the American literary scene, which was scandalized by the frank exploration of homosexuality in his third novel, The City and the Pillar. Vidal, who was proud of his political pedigree (his grandfather, Thomas Gore, was the heroically anti-interventionist Senator from Oklahoma), dabbled in politics, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960.
By the time of the debates, Bill Buckley was the most famous right-wing polemicist in the United States. He founded National Review magazine alongside a menagerie of ex-Trotskyists in 1955. Like Vidal, he dabbled in politics, running for mayor of New York City in 1965. In addition to writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column, Buckley also hosted his own weekly public-affairs program, Firing Line.