Thursday, October 1, 2015

Best of Enemies

Purple Prose Punditry
"Jane, You Ignorant Slut"

Two guys in chairs in a corner of a stage, both elitists and men of letters, giving commentary during the truncated political coverage by the third-string network in a three-network race.

And it changed everything. And not for the better.

I'm not even sure who reads this thing anymore, but I can probably bet that few people remember Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley, Jr., who they were or what they stood for. Both men were similar in backgrounds: they grew up in East Coast affluence and went to the best schools. Buckley went to Yale and Vidal resolutely resisted going to college. Buckley went on to create and edit the conservative weekly The National Review. Vidal became a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Both ran for political office and lost. Very smart men. After that, they're polar opposites: Buckley was the best of the conservative thinkers and his weekly debate show "Firing Line" was a political jousting match that raised the level of discourse. Vidal was considered a liberal, even a radical, but one could make the case that he was more of a libertarian than what passes for libertarianism these days. Vidal was fascinated by power in all forms—political, financial, sexual—and despised those who craved it (even if he did, himself) and exploited it.

The year was 1968, an election year. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and was a controversial figure. He had overseen some amazing social changes domestically, but was mired down in the Vietnam war debacle—Americans had turned against him and he famously announced that he would not run again for a second term (he had become President when Kennedy was assassinated and elected legitimately to a full four year term) and America was at a crossroads. 1968 was a bad year. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and soon after Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down while running for President. There was a power vacuum politically and Nature may abhor vacuums but politicians relish them.

And what politicians relish, the power-brokers at the television networks and their news departments relish like a multi-course meal, with a good wine and a self-satisfied cigar at the end. 

Unless you were ABC news. ABC was an off-shoot network and it didn't matter what it did (that wasn't related to football), it was always the red-headed step-child of network TV. CBS was the "champagne network." NBC had a rich history of broadcasting, as CBS had in radio, to the point where it had two networks, the red and the blue network. ABC started as NBC's blue network, and was perpetually the third network in a three network race for attention—one of the broadcast talking heads in Best of Enemies says that the only reason ABC was number three is that there wasn't a number four commercial network.

The political conventions were a monetary drain for all three, and in 1968, ABC made the bold move to limit its convention coverage to only 90 minutes per night, eschewing what was traditionally "gavel-to-gavel" coverage. And to gin up ratings for their truncated broadcast, they decided to hold a "commentary/analysis" segment featuring Buckley and a commentator from the left—Buckley was asked who he didn't want in the opposite chair and he replied either a communist or a socialist or (as an after-thought) Gore Vidal. ABC, grasping an immediate opportunity for fireworks, hired Vidal. The two men despised each other.

The result proved popular for ABC, garnering higher ratings, but its worth as commentary on the the conventions, both Republican and Democrat, was negligible, providing more heat than light. Rather than analysis, it turned, from the beginning, into a bitch-fest between Vidal and Buckley, with the two taking personal swipes, talking over each other, and rarely mentioning the conventions, the candidates, or any of the issues that might affect the American people. No, it became about Vidal carping about past Buckley views that in present circumstances seemed controversial and Buckley's gibes about Vidal's relationship with the Kennedy's, and more about personal reputations—all in the most polite of tones and using multi-syllabic words that were probably going over the heads of many viewers. Dictionary sales surely must have gone up.

The suits at ABC were pleased...until the rancor became so acute that it turned into name-calling and physical threats (sadly appropriate for the events during the Democratic convention in Chicago), which led to nervous network affiliates, lawsuits that dragged on, and the last convention commentary that would have such back-and-forth for ABC.

But, the ratings jump did not go unnoticed. The respectable "60 Minutes" program began doing a "Point/Counter-point" segment with columnists Shana Alexander and James J Kilpatrick (which SNL parodied with Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin and the memorable counter-argument "Jane, you ignorant slut!"). This begat "Crossfire," which begat "Hardball," which begat "Hannity and Combes"...

...which begat the general decline in news coverage and the entree  to the blurred lines between commentary, opinion and anything that might objectively be called "news" when one has to fill up 24 hours of air-time. Sparks generated ratings, so facts be damned. The age of so-called punditry began.

Now, as contrast, let me tell you a story of two such commentators that were used locally on Seattle's evening news. John Carlson and Walt Crowley were the right and left for a commentary segment of the KIRO-TV evening news for quite a few years, post Buckley-Vidal. The debates were often contentious and the two rarely agreed on anything and neither were afraid to take pot-shots at each other. Despite televised appearances, however, the two were good friends and confidantes, and when Crowley was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, one of his supporters and presences during the ordeal was his old sparring partner, Carlson. When a post-operation stroke finally claimed Crowley's life September 21, 2007 among those paying last respects at his hospital bed was Carlson. The friendship and respect were mutually shared, even if their opinions were not. That's the way the world should work, as that's how learning is accomplished.

In the years since Buckley-Vidal, we've lost the rules of order that go with debate—what used to be called "civil discourse" when done well and done properly. Now punditry is pugilism and the Buckley-Vidal "debates" had a lot to do with that demise done for entertainment's sake, rather than enlightenment's. Ratings and the lowest common denominator have gone a long way to chip away at the exchange of ideas to make it seem more like professional wrestling and that "bread and circuses" manner ("style" is giving it too much credit) has crept into the current political campaign (it was always been there, now it's a lot more crude and more obvious). Best of Enemies is a reminder of the demarcation point of what we lost.

Carlson (left, uncharacteristically), Buckley and Crowley (right)


  1. Finally, commentary worthy of comment. All too true, this - though in defense of pugilism, the beauty of Gore and Vidal was one never knew who deserved a punch first, or more. Pluralism, in that sense - another neglected American commodity, it's value determined by the lowest common denominator, the unwashed viewing masses. rather than the good of the common weal, ably inflated by these two common weasels.

    1. 1) Thanks for commenting (and not using it to add links to a scam-site) and 2) Thanks for reading (although I apologize that you waded through a rather lackluster review with several mistakes—which Ive fixed). Yeah, it was a lost opportunity for discourse to become mere high-brow mud-wrestling. These days I enjoy watching the new incarnation of "Firing Line" hosted by Margaret Hoover even though it offers less debate and keeps to an interview structure, but it does offer a good sampling of genuine conservative views which I find enlightening and educational.