In 1968, the year both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, America’s two political parties held their conventions in the run up to that November’s general election. The Republicans opted to stage their performances in Miami, along a thin spit of land conducive to thwarting protest demonstrations, which were then frequent and often violent in the assassinations’ aftermath. The Democrats selected Chicago’s south side not far from the Midwest’s largest slaughter houses. Mayor Richard Daley promised “law and order” and firm resistance to antagonists assembling on his city’s streets.
At the time only three television networks ruled the airways, with ABC occupying a distant third place. Both NBC and CBS covered the conventions gavel-to-gavel and, for the first time, in “living color.” Struggling ABC News had resources sufficient for only 90 minutes of convention broadcasts. Perhaps in desperation the network’s executives happened upon a unique and inexpensive supplement: a series of 10 debates, five for each convention, featuring William F. Buckley, Jr., and Gore Vidal, bitter rivals, to be sure. ABC’s decision forever changed television and politics. All of this was developed into a film, Best of Enemies, which you can stream from Netflix.
I was 21 at the time of the conventions, a junior at Berkeley, site of numerous, well-documented protests. I do not recall watching the Republican convention or the Buckley-Vidal debates. I did not miss the Chicago convention and the gestapo tactics of Daley’s police. Decades later I view that fateful year as a turning point for the U.S.
So does Best of Enemies. Buckley’s views—expressed in the pages of National Review magazine, which he founded, and during the debates—defined the emerging conservatism that has mushroomed into the loathsome GOP of today. It’s all there issuing from Buckley’s pen and mouth.
He detested the poor, people of color, liberalism, and government’s role in helping the least fortunate; those, in Buckley’s mind, who were too lazy and morally depraved to escape from self-induced poverty. Success and true enlightenment were to be found only in the country’s private institutions, Christian religion, and individual pursuits.
Does this sound familiar? Today’s Republican Party has carried Buckley’s dogma to extremes.
As for television and almost all media, image now trumps substance, controversy obliterates intelligent exchange, and “news” inheres in ideology, consumed according to prejudice.