The Death of Civilized Debate

A documentary is making the rounds, in the theaters last spring and now on PBS and On Demand, that is a reminder of how politics used to be different. This is not by way of a discussion of the current political season or any commentary on the campaigns or their positions. I will not drag us there; I have promised. But this historical  view, “The Best of Enemies,” which chronicles a series of debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, hearkens back to the days when the tone of debate could be intelligent and civil. What a concept!

The popular notion is that America does not like intellectuals. Our tall tales and folk heroes are often about simple men who get the better of the fellow  with book-learnin’ through common sense and American knowhow. Conventional wisdom is to disdain “eggheads” and to embrace the Common Man.

But Americans do enjoy – or used to enjoy – the intelligent presentation of political opinions that they themselves hold dear. In 1968,  when ABC decided to host a series of conversations between two intellectual giants who held very different views, America watched and embraced – individually – their beloved smarty-pants of the Left and the Right.

ABC was the junior network at the time, readily losing in the ratings and without the venerable reputation of a CBS or NBC when it came to news. As the 1968 presidential conventions were upcoming, they didn’t have anchors like a Walter Cronkite or a David Brinkley to woo watchers. They staged the debates as a way to provide alternative coverage, starting with the Republican Convention and Miami, and the debates were a success.

The idea of two people sitting civilly in armchairs holding a purely verbal discussion to eviscerate each other’s political arguments seems so old-fashioned now. Rarely do people sit and have rational conversations using facts and persuasive arguments. They still do it – but on your local PBS public television station where the issues are narrowly focused and typically local, what the mayor plans to do or how to improve recycling. These 1968 debates were amazing, for at least three reasons.

First, because of Gore Vidal. Legendary essayist, novelist, America’s “biographer,” and hero to the progressives, you could not imagine anyone more American and less like Paul Bunyan. He was a Southern aristocrat – related to Al Gore – who was also linked by marriage to Jackie Kennedy. Also openly bisexual, he was the first novelist to feature gay characters as protagonists. He regularly rubbed elbows with Hollywood celebrities aan the White House and ran for public office several times, unsuccessfully.

His democratic ideals were anti-war and anti-wealth and mostly just anti–. When he was criticizing Nixon or McCarthy, his comments were dead on point and hilarious, though you get the feeling that he was not so much championing the poor as simply trying to stick it to the rich. Yet the analysis was true then and still true now:

There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party…and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.  — Gore Vidal

Vidal notoriously detested Bobby Kennedy, reportedly because he saw Bobby as a rival for the presidential run he planned. The idea that a pansexual intellectual known primarily to Americans for his scandalous satire about a transgender character, Myra Breckinridge – the notion that he tthough he could gather national support as a candidate seems absurd.

Buckley, as well, was the darling of the right. He was also a prominent essayist, writer, and editor of the National Review which practically defined conservatism. He had parlayed a successful writing career into a public television show, Firing Line, which ran for 33 years. His prominent support of politicians from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan was considered critical to their success, and his ideas were peppered with an intellectual style that is admirable. (Even when the ideas are repugnant, whether supporting segregation or suggesting HIV-positive people should be tattooed.)

Conservatism … stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.– William Buckley

He was in many ways the bookend to Vidal. Both loved television; both loved to talk and did so in complex and powerful language; and, both men loathed each other.

As these two argue their way through the hot mess of the 1968 campaign – the riots in Chicago, the antiwar and law and order sentiments battling for supremacy – they stand for a time when the news covered important issues. They sit quietly discussing in calm tones poverty, military expansion, racism, and the role of government, the same as if they were addressing a zoning ordinance or the floating price of the yen. Which is when the second amazing thing happens.

Because after all, in their own minds, they are dueling; they have been sword fighting for eight of these debates. In the ninth debate, the words get extra heated.  The police are breaking heads outside the halls, the demonstrators have been shouting obscenities and anti-government slogans for days. Buckley says – in part – “some people were pro-Nazi and they were well treated by those who ostracized them – but I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American marines….”

Vidal interjects that “the only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself…” and while the moderator, Howard K. Smith,  asks for calm, “let’s not call names….” Buckley explodes –  “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

After a shocked silence, Smith mildly says that’s all the time they have. Somewhere in the back a network executive is yelling to pull the plug. That was too much for the news, back then. The debates close. But Buckley, for all his delight in goading his opponents intellectually, thought that attacking someone personally was completely inappropriate. He was so perturbed at losing his cool that he wrote a lengthy piece in Esquire magazine trying to justify actions which he found repugnant.

Even there, his rhetoric was professorial, fretting that he had engaged in ad hominem attacks. (I had to look up ad hominem, I didn’t even know it was Latin for attacking someone personally). Vidal responded with his own essay in Esquire, which led to Buckley suing Vidal and the magazine for libel, then countersuits, lengthy litigation, a settlement, and a revival of the suit when the magazine accidentally reprinted the essay years later. If Buckley were still alive, perhaps he would be suing over the documentary itself.

Once upon a time, even people whose politics was reactionary preferred to win arguments with persuasion rather than with name-calling.

The third amazing thing is that this exchange sowed the seeds of its own destruction. As civilized as it was, the part that got the most notice – the “entertainment” part – was the way the debate degraded. A whole new form of debate — the one on one – was launched like Point Counter Point where opponents faced each other and threw nasty barbs while allegedly covering an issue. Further ddiscussion like the McLaughlin group let the moderator shout “Wrong!” at any idea he disagreed with. And though these formats were funny – funny enough to spawn satires  (“Jane, you ignorant slut…) —  their creation further intermingled  ridiculous ways of discussing ideas with the ideas themselves.

Until here we are.  “Talking heads” throng news shows all day long, but they say very little that would further solving actual problems. The majority of political discussion is so much personality driven that it is indistinguishable from gossip. (“Did you hear what so-and-so said about whositz yesterday?”) How people stand, dress, interrupt, or wear their hair is discussed at length. Their policies and solutions barely register, unless it involves a specific personal criticism of someone else.

Conventional wisdom is that the public won’t watch two people sitting civilly and discussing the fate of the universe. But there was a time when the public did. And whether we were smarter as a nation then or now is hard to say.

Leave a Reply