Photos and video of police beating protesters during Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention provide lasting images of those tumultuous times. But another clash — 10 debates between political and literary icons William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal — may actually have had a more lasting legacy on U.S. politics.
The contentious debates — five in Miami as Republicans nominated Richard Nixon and five in Chicago as Democrats selected Hubert Humphrey — are the subject of “Best of Enemies,” a compelling documentary that will be screened on Thursday as part of the Walker Art Center’s “Cinema of Urgency” series.
The film’s footage of convention coverage (in color!) is concurrently a trip back in media and political time and a portal to today’s increasingly debased debate.
While relatively recent history, in media terms 1968 was still B.C. — before cable (and computers) atomized audiences. In fact, given the dominance of NBC and CBS and the struggles of ABC, it wasn’t even the “Big Three” era — more like two and a half. So the third-place network nixed gavel-to-gavel coverage and gambled with the Buckley-Vidal debates, which shifted coverage (and viewers) from the gray eminence of anchors to the red-hot rhetoric of pundits.
Except that the conservative icon Buckley and liberal lion Vidal were distinctly different from today’s talking heads. Both products of a patrician, Eastern establishment (much maligned today), their erudition matched their passion as they argued over core issues such as war, race and economic structures.
“These were people with enormous gifts and accomplishments and integrity for whom ideas and words mattered enormously,” said Lawrence Jacobs, who holds the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Jacobs, who will moderate a post-screening discussion with the former vice president, added: “Today’s words are just kind of cartridge shells coming out of fast-moving rhetorical guns.”
And for a brief, defining time they were in ’68, too.
During a night of chaos on the streets and in the convention hall, the Buckley-Vidal verbal match almost moved from chess to boxing when Buckley, goaded by Vidal, lost his cool.
In a riveting, tense moment, Buckley, the author of “God and Man at Yale,” took the Lord’s name in vain, used a crude slur and threatened violence on Vidal.
“Now listen, you queer,” Buckley seethed, inches from Vidal, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the [expletive] face and you’ll stay plastered.”
The ire was real and, as recounted in “Best of Enemies,” the visceral verbal exchange seemed to haunt both men for years. To some degree, it also has haunted U.S. politics. Because ABC’s ratings rose, the ’68 debates begot “Firing Line,” “Point-Counterpoint” on “60 Minutes” and CNN’s “Crossfire,” among others. And it’s not just commentators but candidates in on the act, as seen in several 2016 debates.
“It was a turning point — we moved from polite political discourse to being biting, satirical, acerbic,” Jacobs said.
And yet despite the flash of anger, there were more flashes of brilliance. Buckley and Vidal shared an unmistakable intellectualism and earnestness that’s rare — or even missing — today. Most notable, the two outsized personalities debated big ideas and even ideology, but were nowhere near as horse-race obsessed as many of today’s top pundits. (Or candidates for that matter, as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ and Ted Cruz’s post-Wisconsin victory speeches that mostly focused on their campaigns and not on governing).
“Part of what struck me was that neither debater had any meaningful connection to either party,” Walter Mondale said in an interview. “Both were recognized, brilliant Americans who made their name as gifted writers and debaters.”
The debates were a “high-wire act in terms of ideas and values and a belief about the direction of the country” when there was still a “bedrock of respect for government and the people running the country that I think has been incinerated,” Jacobs said.
Despite sharp departures in style and substance, there are similarities between ’68 and ’16, Mondale said. “It may be that just as America was unhinged as we tried to bring that awful war to a close and conduct conventions in the midst of it that led to this hotter, harsher rhetoric — that the feeling that the United States is not performing as it should be is creating a kind of unmanageable anger from Americans. It’s different issues, but the same anger, distrust and disappointment.”
And the way it’s expressed is exasperating. “We’re getting these glancing blows and not really talking about the values and fundamental direction of the country,” Jacobs said. “We’re just kind of falling into it — it’s just an accidental byproduct of elections about hand size and a false debate about qualifications.”
When asked about his wish for today’s political and media era, a landslide of voters and viewers might agree with Mondale.
“Above all a sense of respect for each other, of restraint, respectful listening and a willingness to find compromise,” he said.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.