For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?—Jane Austen, 1813
In 1968 there existed in the U.S. two especially splendid exemplars of a now-extinct species: the celebrity intellectual. They were Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Then in their early forties (they were both born in 1925), Vidal and Buckley became famous in a way that no intellectual is today. Both got onto the cover of Time magazine; both were regulars on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; both made much-publicized runs for political office; both provided fodder for stand-up comics. They were each of them patrician in manner, glamorous in aura, irregularly handsome, consumedly narcissistic, ornate in vocabulary, casually erudite, irrepressibly witty, highly telegenic, and by all accounts great fun to be around. They were powerfully connected, both politically and socially: Buckley was on close terms with Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, and his wife, Pat, was the doyenne of Park Avenue society (she ran the Met Costume Gala, Manhattan’s most glittering annual social event, before Vogue editor Anna Wintour took it over); Vidal, the grandson of a prominent senator, was a stepbrother-in-law of Jackie Kennedy (after Vidal’s mother divorced her second husband, he married Jackie’s mother) and a confidant of her husband, the president, as well as an intimate friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, Princess Margaret, and Tennessee Williams. Each spoke in a theatrical accent of his own invention: they did not merely have opinions, they pronounced them.
Also, they warmly hated each other. Buckley—founder and editor of National Review; host of his own TV talk show, Firing Line; syndicated newspaper columnist; and onetime New York City mayoral candidate—was a man of the right. Vidal—best-selling novelist, Broadway playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and onetime congressional candidate from upstate New York—was a man of the left. But this did not explain the intensity of their mutual loathing; Buckley, after all, was a boon companion to lefties like Norman Mailer and John Kenneth Galbraith. The antipathy Buckley and Vidal felt for each other was personal, perhaps even psychosexual.
It was in 1968, a presidential election year, that the television network ABC came up with a bold idea. What if, during the political conventions taking place that summer, these two notorious enemies could be coaxed into appearing together on live TV to argue politics? Wouldn’t that boost the network’s dismal ratings? Wouldn’t it be ripping good theater?
In the event, it proved to be more ripping than the network could foresee. Despite their mutual aversion, Buckley and Vidal were unable to resist this proposition: they both lusted for the sort of fame television could provide them. (“Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television” was Vidal’s motto.) Their series of ten nightly quarter-hour clashes—beginning at the relatively staid Republican convention in Miami and continuing through the bloody Democratic convention in Chicago—went from stylish vituperation to arch bitchiness to near fisticuffs, culminating in an explosive exchange that left network executives and viewers at home not quite able to believe what they had heard: Vidal calling Buckley a “pro- or crypto-Nazi” and Buckley calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to “sock” him “in the goddamn face.” Such language on television was unprecedented. As Dick Cavett later commented, “The network nearly shat.”
Watching the spectacle on live TV as a thirteen-year-old boy while staying on Long Island Sound at the family home of a chum I had met that summer in tennis camp, I had a different reaction. I thought it was thrilling. I had never heard anyone say goddamn on TV before, or even queer, at least in that specialized pejorative sense. I was a “teen for Gene”—that is, a callow supporter of the liberal anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy—so my political sympathies were naturally with Vidal, who deplored our ruinous imperial meddling in Vietnam, and against Buckley, who was so hawkish that he talked cavalierly of using tactical nuclear weapons against Hanoi. But I was mesmerized by Buckley’s rhetorical deftness, by his eloquent and often deadly ripostes. I fantasized about going up against the great conservative icon myself some day (which, as it happens, I eventually did, to no great effect).
The epic parry and thrust between Vidal and Buckley was unforgettable to those who saw it—not quite rising, perhaps, to the standard of Gladstone and Disraeli but certainly better than anything we’ve witnessed since. When Richard Nixon was asked to what purpose he would put the auditorium of his presidential library, he said it should be used to reenact “great debates like—oh, Vidal and Buckley’s 1968 battle.”
But why reenact them when we have the tapes? Not only have they been uploaded to YouTube, but they were also generously sampled in the superb 2015 documentary about the Buckley-Vidal clash, Best of Enemies. I have watched them repeatedly—enough that I am able to do a fairly creditable impression of Vidal and Buckley in the run-up to their climactic insults, which I perform, without prompting, during any lull at a dinner party. I have learned to mimic the way Buckley meticulously intones all three syllables of the word queer: “Now listen, you quee-ay-uh…”
The televised battle between Vidal and Buckley took place at a fraught historical moment. The year 1968 opened with the humbling of the U.S. military in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive and continued with the abrupt announcement from President Johnson that he would not seek a second term, the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and weeks of arson and looting in American cities. The country appeared to be coming apart at the seams. And then from the Democratic convention in Chicago came the televised spectacle of out-of-control police beating anti-war protesters. The violence even made it to the floor of the convention hall, where CBS correspondent Dan Rather was shown on live TV, dazed and with his headset crushed, telling Walter Cronkite, “I’m sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach.”
Given the grim backdrop to the Vidal-Buckley debates, it is remarkable how funny the images from this era now seem—the Republican women arriving at the Miami convention, their hair blue-rinsed, their faces leathery and fatuous, and their pastel dresses with matching accessories carefully coordinated by convention organizers so as not to appear “garish” on TV; the candidate Richard Nixon striking his enduringly ridiculous trademark V-for-victory pose, his arms raised stiffly above his head, his face a grinning mask, his lapels almost around his ears. Then there are the preening principals: Buckley at the helm of his sailboat, flashing that “it’s good to be Bill” smile of his; Vidal brooding sardonically in the study of La Rondinaia, his magnificent Italian residence built into a cliff high over the Gulf of Salerno—where, in the last decades before his death, an amplified voice from tourist boats in the Mediterranean waters far below could daily be heard announcing in a dozen languages, “There, in his villa, lives the famous American writer Gore Vidal.”
How equally pitted were these adversaries? Well, Buckley was “the great debater of his time,” and Vidal was “the great talker of his time”—so observes Sam Tanenhaus, a former New York Times editor who has long been at work on a biography of Buckley, in an interview in Best of Enemies. And there was a perverse Freudian reciprocity between Buckley and Vidal that heightened their mutual wariness. As Tanenhaus puts it, “Each one saw in the other a kind of exaggerated image of his own anxious version of himself.”
The Musical Contest, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1755. © By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London / Art Resource, NY.
Buckley was born into his conservative principles and never wavered. Reared in a large and pious Catholic family headed by an Irish American oilman who had made a fortune in Mexico (and then lost much of it when the Mexican government nationalized its oil interests), Buckley grew up in Mexico, Paris, England, and Sharon, Connecticut—which at least partly accounts for his rather synthetic accent, otherwise unobserved in nature. He attended Yale and, upon graduating, published an exposé of the rampant atheistic liberalism he claimed to have encountered there titled God and Man at Yale. After a couple of years in the CIA (where his handler was E. Howard Hunt, later to serve as one of the Watergate burglars), Buckley founded National Review, which under his decades-long stewardship became the nation’s most influential organ of right-wing opinion. In 1965 he ran on the Conservative Party ticket for mayor of New York, outshining the eventual victor John Lindsay in debates and, despite his aristocratic manner, drawing surprisingly strong support from white working-class New Yorkers disaffected with the liberal establishment. Asked by a reporter what he would do if he won the election, Buckley deadpanned, “Demand a recount.”
Buckley’s guiding idea was to fortify American conservatism by expunging its crazier elements. It was good to be anti-communist, but you shouldn’t claim, as some John Birchers did, that Eisenhower was in the pay of the communists; it was good to be libertarian, but you shouldn’t go off the deep end like Ayn Rand; it was good to be a cultural traditionalist, but you shouldn’t make any noise about “rootless Jewish cosmopolitans.” Once the loonies were marginalized, conservatism would become respectable to a broader swath of the American electorate. And with Buckley as its handsome front man, one might even come to believe that, as Time proclaimed on the cover of the issue bearing his likeness, conservatism can be fun. Its image thus remade, the conservative moment would be poised to rid the Republican Party of its Rockefeller-liberal wing. The successful conclusion of this grand experiment was to be Ronald Reagan.
Like Buckley, Vidal was born into a conservative lineage—his senator grandfather was a staunch opponent of FDR’s New Deal. He attended Exeter, where he excelled on the debate team, and joined the army near the end of World War II. While stationed in Alaska, he wrote his first novel, Williwaw, at nineteen. Deciding that, as a published author, there was little point in attending college, he instead, at the age of twenty-four, bought an imposing 1820s Greek Revival house on the Hudson River near Rhinebeck. The expensive upkeep of the newly acquired estate drove him to start writing for television and later for the theater and movies.
At the same time, Vidal was indulging an insatiable carnal appetite:
I calculated, at twenty-five, that I had had more than a thousand sexual encounters, not a world record (my near contemporaries Jack Kennedy, Marlon Brando, and Tennessee Williams were all keeping up), but not bad, considering that I never got a venereal disease like Jack and Marlon, or suffered jealousy like Tennessee.
These encounters were almost exclusively with men, many of whom Vidal picked up in the Everard Baths in New York City—including Howard Austen, who was to became his lifelong “permanent playmate” (but a platonic one). Vidal insisted he was driven not by romance but by pure lust—no kissing!—and that he always took the active role, never a passive one. One of the more famous trysts was with Jack Kerouac at the Chelsea Hotel—after which Kerouac boasted to his friends, “I blew Gore Vidal!” (Years later, on the Dick Cavett Show, a tipsy and belligerent Norman Mailer challenged Vidal to reveal what he had done to Kerouac. “He has a great line,” Vidal recalled, “that I destroyed Kerouac by fucking him in the ass.”) Vidal cultivated an ambiguous sexual persona. In his twenties he was ostentatiously pursued by the much older Anaïs Nin. Later there was talk of him marrying Joanne Woodward or Claire Bloom, both close friends. Yet his heavy-drinking mother, Nina, was known to accost strangers in New York bars and tell them, “Oh, my son is a homosexual. Pity me.”
Vidal himself maintained that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, and that these acts are clearly natural, otherwise no one would do them. Are homosexual acts “normal”? No. But then neither, Vidal observed, are heterosexual acts. Statistically speaking, Vidal added, the sexual norm is masturbation—from which “all else is deviation.”
Having established himself as a successful novelist, screenwriter (working on Ben-Hur), and playwright, Vidal decided to try his hand at the family business of politics. By this time he had evolved away from the conservative principles of his grandfather to a position just left of liberal. In 1960, prodded by Eleanor Roosevelt and with the backing of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and former president Harry Truman, Vidal ran for Congress in New York’s Twenty-Ninth District, where he had his country home. Although he lost—the district was heavily Republican—he waged a serious, idealistic campaign. Among his proposals was that, as an alternative to being drafted into the military, young people should be given an opportunity to serve as American goodwill ambassadors by bringing their technical skills to third world countries—an idea that, when Vidal pressed it upon Kennedy, his stepbrother-in-law, evolved into the Peace Corps. (Vidal liked JFK for his bookish intelligence and sexual abandon but openly loathed his brother Robert as a puritanical thug unfit for the presidency—which ultimately alienated Vidal from the Kennedys.)
The convention encounters between Vidal and Buckley were not their first; the two had already had a couple of televised colloquies in the early 1960s as suave spokesmen for liberal versus conservative points of view. Their negative chemistry had been instant. To Buckley, Vidal seemed a dangerous left-wing extremist, and no doubt a pervert. To Vidal, Buckley seemed “a sort of right-wing Liberace,” with a whiff of arch-Catholic anti-Semitism about him. One TV critic remarked that these intellectual adversaries looked like “two hissing adders.” Another noted that Buckley’s “facial expressions are unequaled by anyone in show business with the possible exception of Martha Raye.” Yet their erudite to-and-fro of ideas, accompanied by velvety insults, made for exhilarating TV—like a Noël Coward play, said a critic for the New York Herald Tribune.
Just before they met again, Vidal further aroused Buckley’s moralistic disgust by publishing a best-selling satirical sexual fantasy called Myra Breckinridge—in which, among other interesting plot developments, the transsexual title character anally rapes a corn-fed straight guy with a strap-on dildo. Buckley lost no time in calling attention to Myra Breckinridge in their 1968 debates, insinuating that authorship of this “perverted” piece of “pornography” disqualified Vidal as a serious political commentator. When Vidal opened the first debate in Miami by calling the Republicans the party of “greed,” Buckley responded that “the author of Myra Breckinridge is well acquainted with the imperatives of greed.”
Tank formation, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1999. © Sovfoto / UIG / Bridgeman Images.
But Vidal was ready for him. “If I may say so, Bill, before you go any further, that if there were a contest for Mr. Myra Breckinridge, you would unquestionably win it,” he replied. “I based the entire style polemically upon you—passionate and irrelevant.”
Vidal’s suggestion that Buckley was the original for the transsexual Myra especially irked Buckley, and even more so his wife, Pat. Thanks to Vidal’s jibe, she complained, “two hundred million Americans think William F. Buckley is a screaming homosexual.”
The back and forth sexual innuendo continued through the debates, with Buckley referring to Vidal as “feline” and his political analysis as “neurotic” and “diseased,” and Vidal calling Buckley “the Marie Antoinette of the right wing.” Often it took a strangely campy turn. When Vidal, citing a Buckley editorial in National Review that advocated the preemptive bombing of China’s nuclear facilities, refers to “your little magazine, whose name will not pass my lips,” Buckley sneeringly says, “We know that you like nothing to sully your lips.” And Vidal shoots back sotto voce, “You’ll eat it first.”
Moments of theater crop up with almost uncomfortable frequency. In one, Buckley produces a personal letter from the recently assassinated candidate Robert Kennedy in which Kennedy—who despised Vidal as much as Vidal despised him—had joked, “Let’s give Gore Vidal to the Vietcong.” Vidal, unfazed, inspects the letter and declares RFK’s upward-slanting handwriting to be the “sign of a manic-depressive.” In another, Vidal, alluding to Buckley’s famously kinetic tongue, says, “Now Bill, don’t point your tongue at me. Keep it in your cheek, where it belongs”—this after Vidal had just declared Buckley to be “the leading warmonger in the United States.”
But amid all the acidulated repartee, Buckley and Vidal managed to articulate sharply opposing positions on critical issues facing the nation: race and poverty, law and order, containment versus rollback in the Cold War, the morality of military intervention abroad, the limits of the American empire, and the toleration of political dissent. And they did this with a degree of eloquence and intellectual sophistication—marked by casual references to the Monroe Doctrine, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the Congress of Vienna—not seen on TV today.
As for the “Nazi”/“queer” eruption in their penultimate debate on August 28, the coarsening of rhetoric hardly began with them. That day in Chicago had been the most violent of the Democratic convention, as Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police bloodied anti-war demonstrators with their clubs. From the convention podium, Connecticut senator Abe Ribicoff denounced the “gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” looking directly at Daley as he did so. The enraged Daley jumped up from his seat and shouted something at Ribicoff—which, though unmiked, could clearly be made out on the mayor’s lips: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch!”
The mayhem in Chicago had strained the already taut nerves of Vidal and Buckley. Accompanied by Arthur Miller and Paul Newman (who was a delegate to the convention), Vidal had seen it up close, driving into a cloud of tear gas. A sleep-deprived Buckley had been kept up the night before by what he called the “sheer, utter obscenities” issuing from the demonstrators in the park fourteen floors below his hotel window. In the debate Vidal said, “It’s like living under a Soviet regime here,” whereas Buckley expressed his contempt for the anti-war demonstrators—who, he claimed, had provoked the violent police reaction by chanting the name of Ho Chi Minh and raising a Vietcong flag.
Then a seemingly innocuous question was posed by the courtly moderator of the debate: Wasn’t the display of the Vietcong flag by the demonstrators a “provocative act,” rather like “raising a Nazi flag in World War II”?
Leaping at the comparison, Buckley said that those who “egg on” the enemy to shoot our soldiers in Vietnam should at the very least be “ostracized,” the way “pro-Nazi” Americans were.
Upon which Vidal interjected, “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.”
In the split second it took Buckley to register this remark, his jaw tightened and his usually cool features contorted into a rictus of hatred. “Now listen, you queer,” he said, lingering with contempt over the word, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.”
Then, as Vidal blinked his moist eyes and cooed, “Oh, Bill, you’re too extraordinary,” Buckley leaned toward him, looking to be on the verge of delivering the sock-to-the-goddamn-face on live TV. But instead he fell back in his chair again—perhaps under the restraint of a clavicle brace he wore under his suit, the result of a broken collarbone sustained in a sailing accident a few weeks earlier—and declared, “Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to writing his pornography and stop making allusions of Nazism to someone who served in the infantry in the last war.” Whereupon Vidal, who knew that Buckley had never actually made it into combat during World War II, shouted, “You were not in the infantry! Now you’re distorting your own record!”
Do we want laurels for ourselves most, / Or most that no one else shall have any?—Amy Lowell, 1922
As the two men removed their headsets at the end of the debate, a smiling Vidal whispered to Buckley, “Well, I guess we gave them their money’s worth tonight!” But Buckley, trembling with indignation, said nothing. Leaving the set, he took (as he later recalled) “great strides through the maze of technicians, operators, executives, reporters, and guests, all of whom looked at me as I stomped by and then, quickly, looked away: afraid, perhaps, that I would greet anyone guilty of a lingering glance with a sock on his goddamn face.” No sooner had he arrived at his trailer than Paul Newman swung open the door.
“That was the most disgusting display I’ve ever seen!” Newman said.
“Have you ever been called a Nazi?” Buckley spat back.
“That’s political,” Newman replied. “What you called him was personal.”
Then he left Buckley’s trailer, slamming the door behind him.
By the standards that prevailed in those days, it is hard to say who was the greater sinner. To call someone a “queer” back then was not considered egregious, at least if it was done in private. Buckley, though, had used the term before a television audience of some ten million. That was why his outburst was widely considered embarrassing, even shameful. And as far as Vidal was concerned, the application of “queer” to him was simply inaccurate. Homosexual acts, he held, did not make one a homosexual. There were “queens”—like, say, Truman Capote—of which he was definitely not one, but there were no “queers.”
Today—when, as linguist John McWhorter observes, the only remaining obscenities are faggot, cunt, and nigger—an ejaculation like Buckley’s would, of course, be judged more harshly.
As for Vidal’s reference to Buckley as a “pro- or crypto-Nazi,” it was perhaps more incendiary than Vidal had intended. “I was trying to think of the word fascist,” he later told his biographer Fred Kaplan. “It had gone out of my head.” In the heat of the live-televised moment, the only word Vidal could think of was Nazi. Or so he claimed.
Yet from Vidal’s perspective, calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi was not all that outlandish. Had Buckley not opposed the civil rights movement? In a National Review editorial in the late 1950s titled “Why the South Must Prevail,” Buckley had even argued that Southern whites, as the “advanced race,” were justified in taking “such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically”—including, if it should come to that, “violence.” Had Buckley not shown himself to be a warmonger—by, for instance, advocating a preemptive attack on China’s nuclear facilities? And, Vidal insinuated, was there not reason to suspect Buckley was an anti-Semite? Both before and after the debate, Vidal had brought up an incident from 1944 in which three of Buckley’s sisters had desecrated the Episcopal Church in Buckley’s hometown of Sharon by smearing honey and feathers on the pews and putting sexually suggestive cartoons from The New Yorker and soft-core erotic pictures of “Vargas girls” from Esquire in the prayer books. Their motive for vandalizing the church was that the minister’s wife, a real estate agent, had violated an age-old town covenant by selling a house to a Jewish family—which, apparently, had incurred the wrath of the Buckley paterfamilias. Vidal maintained that Bill Buckley had inherited the anti-Semitic prejudice of his father.
Even if Vidal felt his use of the term Nazi may have been too extreme, he evinced no remorse. After all, he had succeeded in getting Buckley to reveal his ugly side to the nation. “I had enticed the cuckoo to sing its song, and the melody lingers on,” he gleefully commented.
And while Buckley bitterly regretted his rare loss of composure, he did not regret calling Vidal a “queer.” Indeed, when he was negotiating with the editor of Esquire to write a defense of his behavior in the debates—leading to a twelve-thousand-word article published a year later and titled “On Experiencing Gore Vidal”—Buckley wrote, “I must be assured that your lawyers will allow me to call Vidal a homosexual in print.”
Vidal was given a chance to reply to Buckley in the following issue of Esquire, dated September 1969. In his article—titled “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr.”—Vidal cited the Sharon incident as evidence of the Buckley family’s anti-Semitism and described Buckley in the heat of the debate as “looking and sounding not unlike Hitler, but without the charm.” (Vidal also mocked Buckley’s convoluted speech as “jumbled by the strangest syntax since General Eisenhower faded from the scene.”) Incensed at this attack on his family’s honor, Buckley sued both Vidal and Esquire for libel. The case dragged on for three excruciating years, consuming millions of dollars in legal fees, until Buckley finally dropped it—but not before Vidal had endured relentless grilling from Buckley’s lawyer on what the definition of homosexual might be.
Although Buckley and Vidal were never to come near each other again, their 1968 encounter continued to have personal repercussions. Norman Mailer’s long chumminess with Buckley, for example, led to a dramatic falling out between Mailer and Vidal, which culminated in a legendary punch-up between the two in 1977 at a party in New York honoring Lord Weidenfeld and hosted by Lally Weymouth, daughter of the publisher of the Washington Post, in front of guests including Jackie Onassis, William Paley, Lillian Hellman, Joseph Alsop, Susan Sontag, and the British ambassador Peter Jay. When a horrified Weymouth saw Mailer and Vidal going at it, she shouted, “Somebody do something!” At which Clay Felker said to her, “Shut up, this fight is making your party!” The incident became known as “the night of the small fists.”
False Courage, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1788. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, the Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959.
Neither Buckley nor Vidal ever attained the political office they sometimes fantasized about. Buckley considered running for Senate from New York in 1970 as a prelude to challenging Nixon for the White House in 1972, but he abandoned the scheme as a long shot. Vidal ran for the Democratic nomination to be senator from California in 1982, advocating defense cuts, gun control, decriminalization of victimless crimes, and a constitutional convention to promote more direct democracy, but he was soundly defeated in the primary by Jerry Brown, current governor of California.
Still, both men continued to wield outsize power: Buckley as a Republican kingmaker, the intellectual architect of the Reagan revolution; Vidal as the self-styled “biographer” of the United States, writing one best-selling historical novel after another that cast figures like Jefferson and Lincoln in a radically revisionist (and far from flattering) light. Buckley’s influence was easily the greater: his mainstreaming of conservatism shifted the entire U.S. ideological spectrum to the right—including the Democratic party under Bill Clinton. Vidal, from his Italian villa, deployed his cool irony to sneer at America’s perpetually mobilized “national-security state,” its puritanical attitude toward sex, and the hijacking of its Israel policy by pro-Likud neocons. And he continued to indulge his appetite for TV fame—appearing, for instance, opposite Louise Lasser in six episodes of Norman Lear’s satirical soap opera, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
In the last years of his life, Vidal became a bit crazy. He claimed FDR deliberately incited the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, and that Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, was “a noble boy.” Vidal’s decline may have been hastened by his prodigious drinking to ward off his lifelong horror of death. In whiskey, he found, “one’s sense of time is so altered that one feels in the moment immortality—a long luminous present which, not drinking, becomes a fast-moving express train named…Nothing.”
Buckley, by contrast, got less crazy, even apologizing for some of his more odious positions. In 2004 he disavowed his earlier opposition to the civil rights movement. “Yes,” he said, “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong; federal intervention was necessary.” And he came to believe that the conservative moment had destroyed itself by supporting George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. As far as I can tell, though, Buckley never expressed regret for his proposal in the 1980s that people with HIV be forcibly tattooed—on the arm if they were intravenous drug users, on the buttocks if they were gay.
As for their 1968 affray, the two men would always look back on it with opposite emotions. To Buckley it remained a source of pain. When, in a 1999 TV interview with Buckley following the final broadcast in the thirty-three-year run of Firing Line, the “Nazi”/“queer” excerpt was shown, a stunned Buckley was uncharacteristically speechless. He thought—he hoped—the tape had been destroyed. Vidal knew better. He had obtained a complete set of the debate tapes, and he reveled in playing them for a captive audience of guests at his Italian villa.
In their heydays Buckley and Vidal were each deemed a “national treasure.” Now they are somewhat forgotten figures. That is sad. And we have no one like them today, which is sadder. Yet there is something paradoxical about this. Why should we rue the disappearance of the celebrity intellectual when those who achieved that status so easily passed into cultural oblivion? If the species were truly important, would its members not leave some sort of enduring legacy?
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?—Jane Austen, 1813
In Buckley’s case, the problem seemed to be that he never managed to write what he called the “big book”: a classic work laying down the tenets of Buckleyan political thought, one that would guide the movement into the post-Reagan era. Instead he produced only ephemera. “Give it up,” his friend John Kenneth Galbraith told him, “journalism, television, radio, lecturing…It is only books that count.” And Buckley wanted to write that big book. But he was always hopping into his limousine to go to the airport.
Vidal had a different problem. In the relative solitude of La Rondinaia, amid the vineyards and lemon groves, he was able to produce one big book after another, many of them, like Julian, Burr, and Lincoln, huge best sellers. But as Martin Amis observed, Vidal “was too clever, really, to be an effective novelist.” The more interesting characters in his novels all sound like Vidal himself, speaking in witty, steely, ironic epigrams. And these novels are mainly historical fictions—too middlebrow, despite their cleverness and erudition, to make it into the literary canon with Bellow, Roth, and Updike. Does anyone read Vidal’s novels anymore? “It’s not a matter of when Gore Vidal will be forgotten, it’s a matter of when he started to be forgotten,” Truman Capote supposedly observed (a sentiment Vidal later returned with interest when, informed of Capote’s death, he pronounced it “a good career move”).
Some cultural critics have suggested that the televised display of hostility between Vidal and Buckley in 1968 was somehow the beginning of a long decline in the quality of political discourse on American television. But debate and theater are not mutually exclusive. Buckley and Vidal demonstrated that in their epic clash. All you need is a pair of fiercely clever controversialists, skilled in the art of mandarin invective and the practice of malice, who crave fame as salesmen for their implacably opposed worldviews. We seem not to be breeding those anymore.
This essay appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, Rivalry & Feud. Portions of the essay were previously published in New York magazine.