William F. Buckley Jr. versus Gore Vidal: A Rivalry That Helped Define America

1968 was a seismic year in American history, as a climate of unrest erupted into rage on the streets. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy - who pleaded for social change through peaceful means - were assassinated.

Civil disobedience gave way to militants like the Black Panthers, while the Republican and Democratic Party conventions saw hundreds rioting against the quagmire of the Vietnam War.

Despite the success of his Great Society and forcing through of the Civil Rights Act in the memory of John F. Kennedy, the turmoil tarnished the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson, who refused to run for re-election.

2015 documentary Best of Enemies focuses on the rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr, two of the most high-profile American journalists of the 1960s. The pair provided a running commentary on the 1968 presidential election in the form of debates against each other for the American Broadcasting Company.

Vidal and Buckley had the skills to narrate the year’s events. They were intellectual parallels, both being erudite writers and skilled debaters. But ideologically they were polar opposites, with their clashes defining America’s political and cultural polarisation.

Buckley was the Republican founder of the conservative National Review magazine and a stalwart of the New Right. He promoted a fusion of traditionalism, military hawkishness and libertarian free-market capitalism, making him a key influence on Ronald Reagan.

In contrast, the Democrat Vidal was an unabashed liberal and atheist, who often cynically accused his country of chauvinism at home and imperialism abroad, viewing Buckley as emblematic of both.

Vidal was a philosophical forbearer of the 60s counterculture that Buckley accused of debasing American society. Vidal, conversely, considered that embodied progress within the American revolutionary tradition.

Buckley advocated a hard-line “law and order” policy against the 1968 protestors, a mantle taken on by GOP nominee Richard Nixon. One of the talking heads in Best of Enemies, linguist John McWhorter, notes that in 1968 the language of “law and order” was employed by conservatives as a strategy of division, which played into an identity politics along conflicting racial lines.

The proponents of “law and order” not only included Nixon and Buckley, but also George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama who won five Southern states as a “law and order” candidate. Buckley despised racists like Wallace, but Vidal considered him as guilty of the same dog whistle prejudice, as referred to by McWhorter.

This led the infamous spat where Vidal labelled Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” for defending police roughing up the convention demonstrators, with an enraged Buckley responding by calling the bisexual Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch him “in the goddamn face”.

Another page of the Nixon playbook employed by Trump is his appeals to the “silent majority”

Nearly five decades later, 2016 Republican nominee Donald Trump has made “law and order” a key policy plank and is endorsed by Wisconsin police sheriff David Clarke Jr., who at the GOP convention condemned Black Lives Mater as a destructive “hate group”. Vidal referred to such rhetoric as crypto-racism in 1968: but the sheriff also happens to be black.

A black man rising to a position of authority to call for “law and order”, in criticism of his fellow black Americans, exemplifies the modern conservatism that Buckley pioneered. Though racism may be still be endemic in America, it is also a world away from one that drafted young black men to Vietnam while being segregating them in their own country.

This GOP convention also saw the billionaire Peter Theil proudly declaring that he is a gay conservative, while in his keynote speech, Trump pledged to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans as president.

Theil and Trump were cheered for their messages of tolerance, which would have been unthinkable in 2012 under Mitt Romney, let alone in 1968 under a Nixon allied with the queer-bashing Buckley. Ironically, this thanks to progressives like Vidal, who would be horrified at the rise of the demagogic Trump.

Another page of the Nixon playbook employed by Trump is his appeals to the “silent majority” - which Nixon used as part of his “Southern Strategy” to win the support of white Middle American voters.

they influenced and predicted the evolution of American society in all of its complexity

Like Nixon, Trump seeks to portray himself as an authentic representative of American identity who will restore national order, and peace and prestige on the world stage. Trump’s opponents, rather, are clear that he is a bigot who is unfit to hold the presidency.

At the 2016 Democratic convention, the parents of Captain Humayun Khan - a Muslim US army soldier who died in combat in Iraq in 2004  - condemned Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims from entering the US as unconstitutional. Hillary Clinton cited the Khans in her keynote speech to denounce Trump as standing for a divisive and xenophobic populism that is fundamentally un-American in the 21st century.

In a 1993 column, Buckley opined that Muslim immigrants could not integrate into the United States while retaining their religious beliefs, considering them culturally incompatible. But ten years later Captain Khan enlisted to fight for his country and was buried with a headstone engraved with the crescent moon of Islam, after being awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals.

Vidal would cite the Iraq War as validation of his perspective of the US military as an instrument of globalist aggression, while Buckley defended it as a worldwide force for good. But the willingness of Captain Khan to fight and die for his country exemplifies a multiculturalism which Vidal - unlike Buckley - championed as essentially American.

The main parallel between Vidal and Buckley - despite their contrasting views - is that as intellectual leaders and Best of Enemies, they influenced and predicted the evolution of American society in all of its complexity.

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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