Independent Lens: The Best of Enemies

About This Episode


In the summer of 1968, television news changed forever. That year, gunmen assassinated both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Democratic convention in Chicago flared up with protests and violence. Overseas, the Vietnam War raged on, and the streets at home roiled with race riots. With this tense political climate as a backdrop, Best of Enemies captures the legendary televised debates between ideological opposites Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr.

Dead last in the ratings, ABC hired Vidal and Buckley to debate each other during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Buckley, who founded National Review magazine in 1955, was a leading light of the new conservative movement. Gore Vidal, lifelong Democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, was a leftist, taboo-smashing novelist and polemicist. Both believed each other’s political ideologies were dangerous for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight boxing bout, they pummeled each other with exchanges that devolved into personal attacks. These live and unscripted quarrels riveted viewers, and the television industry took notice.

Best of Enemies reveals the moment TV’s political ambition shifted from narrative to spectacle, forever altering the way the media — and Americans — talked about politics.