Having Enemies Is The Best

I just watched The Best of Enemies, the documentary of the Vidal vs Buckley feud, now on Netflix. It’s better than I thought it’d be. I’d assumed the worst when it came out and I read the talking head list; only Dick Cavett, Fred Kaplan, James Wolcott, and Sam Tyrnauer (unknown to me previously) would be expected to have any loyalty to GV, though there were a few others like Todd Gitlin who are safely anti-WFB at least ideologically speaking. Mostly I feared slant because WFB is fortunate in his rhetorically slippery and well connected biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, who is heavily featured. Most importantly, WFB has family to defend him; GV, nephew Burr “A Flock of Seagulls” Steers aside (and who isn’t involved in the doc), does not. But on the whole it’s fair.

I like how the filmmakers showed respect for both men’s intelligence and the pop culture value of their debates, while also correctly coming to the conclusion that the debates spawned the whole pundit-crossfire model that now poisons all news programming.

That said, the filmmakers on the other hand seem baffled by extended feuding and genuine hatred between two intelligent men. Like most people in upper middle class, educated society, they can understand ideological clashes and personality conflicts, but genuine visceral extended mutual loathing is considered weirdly alien. But the rationale, of course, is in the biographies: both men were insiders by birth but outsiders by personality. In a certain important way, both men had declassed themselves: WFB because he was a religious fanatic and worse, “Texas;” GV because of his sexuality and socialism. More to the point: as WFB’s brother says in the documentary, their family identified as frontiersmen; while GV’s roots are Southern and Scots-Irish. Both men were of, and believed in, an honor culture. Feuding for them was perfectly natural.

Personally, I think there should be more of it. Rather than rando, shout-at-each-other encounters between pundits on TV, after which they shake hands and have a drink like Wile E. Coyote and Sam Sheepdog, I’d rather see an extended, genuine feud of ideological and personality opposites, provided that the battle was organic and between intelligent, eloquent people.

Quibbles: It does not mention that GV later wrote that he meant to say “crypto-fascist,” not “crypto-Nazi,” but he admitted that the less extreme compound word probably wouldn’t have set off WFB the same way – which would have been, plainly, a loss for everyone. Also, Hitchens is in the flick (apparently taped before he’d lost his hair from his terminal illness), but doesn’t make the point he made in his essays on the debates, which is that it’s important for people to remember mindset, that the first thing to come to WFB’s enraged mind was GV’s queerness; of all the things WFB could have called GV, “queer” was the choice.

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that WFB tried to sandbag GV with a letter from RFK. It didn’t work, but it was a good try – bonus points for deviousness. Also, Kelsey Grammer does a wonderful vocal WFB (because, after all, no one can be too hammy playing WFB); John Lithgow does a better vocal GV than I expected.

GV is one of my favorites, and of course I’m on his side ideologically, but it’s harder as the years go by for me to hate WFB like I used to. Somewhere, a while back, I saw a picture of a young, smiling, blond WFB that I wish I could un-see because he looks like he could have been my grandmother’s brother. Politically they have a lot in common and even the voice, cadence, and accent are eerily similar adjusting for gender, though my grandmother’s accent is rather less affected. The association with personal kindness has sort of ruined him for me, hatred-wise. Yes, I’m a bit sad about it.