BEST OF ENEMIES: A REVIEW

August 10, 2015

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Produced and Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Featuring: William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal

Review Date: August 12, 2015

Although it is hard to imagine today, there really was a time in the modern era when public intellectual giants bestrode the Earth.   And from the mid-1950s through to the end of the 70s, two of the most renown  of these collusii  were William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.  Emerging from opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum – – the first conservative, the latter progressive, these towering figures with their writings, speeches, pronouncements and television appearances were the the stuff of endless public scrutiny and fascination.  Buckley, an overachieving prodigy, practically carved the conservative movement out of whole cloth; he was the founder of National Review, an essayist extraordinaire, a television host,  author of countless books on politics, art and culture, avid sailor and a concert harpischordist.   Vidal, a polymath and a hedonistic aesthete, was the author of such groundbreaking novels as The City and the Pillar(1948)  and  Myra Breckenridge (1968) and a historical revisionist of the first order.  They were born within months of one another; were almost the same height and spoke with the same honeyed, mellifluous accents of the East Coast patrician class.

 

 

So it was not so astounding that ABC, then limping well behind NBC and CBS in national viewership decided, before the Democratic and Republican Conventions of 1968, to enlist both men as commentators on the proceedings.  The antipathy between the two was well known, as was the divergence of views in politics, culture and art. Fireworks were certainly expected, but nothing on the level of what eventuated.

This documentary captures the two men in all  their scintillating, intellectual prime using the actual archival footage of the time to portray not just two men at diametrically opposed ends of the political spectrum,  but two cultures and ideas of America in direct collision. Here we can look into the first shots fired in America’s cultural  civil war –  a war that rages on unabated today, with the the Vidal wing  having gained the upper hand.

Much about the debate would presage the way the two camps would face off in the future.  The film makers go to great pains to reveal how Vidal had no real intention of fulfilling his role as commentator on the Conventions but from the beginning sought to provoke Buckley into revealing what he considered his ‘unbridled hypocrisy’.  The ad hominem attack strategy worked well for Vidal and he used it as bait to lure Buckley into a trap into which he fell helplessly in the ninth debate.   During the raucous and violent Democratic Convention of August that year, Vidal in an off hand comment, referred to his co-commentator as a crypto-Nazi; Buckley, the veins in his neck bulging, leaned close to Vidal and declaimed:

“Now stop calling me a crypto- Nazi, you queer, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and  you will stay plastered.”

The outburst was entirely out of character for the unflappable Buckley who had learned to bear the lances of liberals for decades with considerable pluck and was one of the country’s finest debaters.

The host quickly cut to a break and Buckley stormed off.  But the incident was to take on a life of  its own, leading to years of litigation between the two men and unending public squabbles in the national press.

Clearly the documentary, which is even handed in its review of the life and work of the two men, attempts to portray an America at the crossroads, using the voices of two of its great antagonists as a barometer.

Yet even  more exquisitely it seeks to investigate the impact of the debates and the notorious outburst on the lives and consciousnesses of the two men themselves.  A telling interview of Buckley by Ted Koppel in 1994 is presented in which Buckley, now aged and frail, is shown the infamous clip once again.  His response is an uncomfortable silence and it is clear that he views the event with deep regret, one of the few missteps in an otherwise brilliantly calibrated public career.

Vidal, on the other hand, is shown at his mansion on the Amalfi coast in Italy, a house built on a precipice, which gives him the perfect vantage, he says, to witness “the collapse of western civilization.” Now aged and frail himself, his books out of print and his silver tongued voice no longer in demand in the public square, he bears his own regrets, and although the photos on his wall of the two men in 1968 are presented as a form of trophy, as if he won the scalp of the firebrand conservative, there is a sadness in his voice – perhaps revealing that the events of so long ago had left him with a bitterness he had not yet expunged.

All of us have moments in our lives that we regret – that we long to go back to and make right.  Some of those incidents and events lie buried for decades but occasionally flare up to haunt us.   Buckley and Vidal were no different in this regard and despite their tremendous public careers and famously impregnable intellects, remained sensitive men to the end.  The true beauty of this film is in its revelation of this simple truth  –  that they were gargantuan forces to be reckoned with, no doubt, but in reality mere mortals bearing their humanity with all the angst, pride, ego and sadness of us all.

 

Avi Davis is the President and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles.

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GOP HOPEFULS JUDGED BY NOT WHAT THEY SAY BUT HOW THEY SAY IT

August 10, 2015

By Avi Davis

Much has already been written about  the characterization of  the 17-strong field of GOP Presidential contenders as a stellar field of candidates, unlike anything seen in recent memory. That observation was only amplified by the first Republican debate on August 6th,making clear that this campaign has already produced a bumper crop – far out shining the measly pickings of only four years earlier.

And since they are off and running it is time to assess the prospects of these men and one woman.  The candidates who will take the lead in this race will not necessarily be those with the most detailed plans for righting the tottering U.S. ship of state; or those with the most refined vision.  It will be those those who can project the self assurance of a president.  What will ultimately matter in these early days will be not so much what the candidates say, but how they say it –  how they look on the stage and how they connect with an audience. Appearances, at this stage, are everything.

If we use these criteria to judge the performances of the first tier debaters on Thursday night ( I did not get a chance to watch the second tier), then the unqualified front runners emerging from the pack are Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Mario Rubio and  Ben Carson.  Cruz, because he was direct in his statements; did not flinch from his previously announced positions and presented a summary which was more targeted and emphatic than anyone else on the stage; Huckabee because he, more articulately than the others,drew attention to the prevailing malaise of the country and the lack of integrity and absence of vision within the country’s current leadership; Rubio, because he shone as the hardscrabble candidate, recounting his fighting struggle from poverty and debt to becoming a resoundingly articulate champion of American values;  And Ben Carson because he was the most likeable individual in the arena – bringing a levity and lightness to an otherwise overly serious discussion, without losing his focus on the gravity of the problems confronting the United States.

On the other hand, the two men who entered the debate as the once presumptive leaders-  Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, fell flat and were largely uninspiring;   Jeb Bush often looked uncomfortable and awkward – and by my reckoning was the least polished and articulate of the speakers;  Scott Walker, who boasts of being just an ordinary guy, actually presented more like an Average Joe, reminding me too often of the actor Chris Parnell who often parodied politicians just like him on Saturday Night Live.

Of the others, Chris Christie did himself no harm when he convincingly roasted Rand Paul over the NSA wire tapping scheme but did not impress as a self assured leader; he was a little too much New Jersey bouncer and less presidential aspirant than he could have been.  His unfortunate positioning on the stage at the beginning of the line of speakers allowed the cameras to catch his girth in full profile; Unfortunate, because Americans, at least in the modern era, do not tend to elect fat men to the presidency.  Rand Paul, receiving a convincing drubbing from Christie, did not recover well and looked rather deflated afterward.  John Kasich came across as a good and honorable man, but not strident in his views nor feisty enough in his demeanour to convince anyone that he would be capable of engaging in mortal combat with the take-no-prisoners Clinton machine.

Which leaves of course the 800 lb. gorilla in the room.  Donald Trump captured the limelight before entering the debate with a populist brand of politics which should be familiar to anyone with a sense of American history.  William Jennings Bryan in the  mid-1890s – and to a certain extent in the two presidential campaigns which followed – became the first candidate to appeal to a wide constituency with a stark, simple message short on specifics but long on bravado.  I thought of him as I watched Trump’s performance.  Trump’s encounter with moderator Megyn Kelly over his characterization of women has now degenerated into a war of attrition between himself and the press, who devoured his tantrum – and his astonishing continued campaign against her – as red meat – in the process turning him into more of a circus act than a leading presidential contender. He must be starting to realize that ‘The Donald’ brand, honed in a spectacular real estate and entertainment career, does not easily mulch down into political capital.  His perpetual frown and surly defensiveness (together with the Megyn Kelly interface and the confusing refusal to disavow a third party stand),transformed him from populist hero into the evening’s bully.  And in the end, no one really likes a bully.

But overall, it was a great evening, full of sparkle and energy and it should give those of us fed up with seven years of our failed experiment in progressivism considerable heart that daring and assertive American leadership , coupled with a return to U.S. greatness, could be just around the corner.


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