When commentary became combat, we loved it


National Post, 24 August 2018

Since 1968's famous debates, commentators lacking the rhetorical mastery of Buckley and Vidal have made the personal attack the first resort

Did the descent of our common discourse to the current level of incivility begin with Twitter, with the internet, with cable television? Or were the dynamics already present 50 years ago, as demonstrated by two of the most erudite figures in American letters?

In the summer of 1968, ABC News, trailing the other networks in ratings and consequently cash on hand, decided to depart from gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. ABC engaged William F. Buckley, a conservative, and Gore Vidal, a liberal, to debate nightly during the convention coverage, first in Miami for the Republicans, and three weeks later in Chicago for the Democrats.

The two went at each other for 10 nights, as much pugilists as belletrists. Their exchanges were substantive and intelligent, but also descended to personal attacks. After the debates, both Buckley and Vidal continued the vituperative exchanges in long essays for Esquire, which in turn gave rise to even longer litigation in the courts. There was no amicable reconciliation. Buckley died in 2008, two years before Vidal; the latter penned an obituary expressing his view that the former was (deservedly, he thought) in hell.

The low point of their television debates was an exchange in which Buckley exploded after Vidal called him a “crypto-Nazi.”

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

Both the gay slur and the threat of violence were a departure from the otherwise genteel disposition Buckley usually displayed, and it remained permanently a prominent part of his long career. Vidal thought that the exchange proved that he bested Buckley. On his part, Buckley came to regret his words and in later years generally refused to speak about the 1968 debates.

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