Those debates turned out to be the peaks of both men’s public careers. As Best of Enemies moves through time, it makes note of the gradual irrelevance of Vidal and Buckley, as the two radical thinkers were slowly left behind by the culture at large. Yet it’s impossible to deny their impact on today’s media landscape. By passionately discussing the problems of America, they triggered the dormant desires of a country in search of a public forum. A sort of cultural awakening, spearheaded by two Howard Beale-like figures, occurred on that ABC set in the summer of 1968. The result was a wave of incessant punditry, which now serves as the bedrock for Fox News and MSNBC. Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly on the right, or Al Sharpton on the left, the culture is inundated with opinions — all of which are in lockstep with those of their respective political parties.
But Vidal and Buckley eschewed groupthink. They were aristocrats who thought for themselves. When together, they personified what a conversation has the capacity to be. Many have attempted and failed to duplicate their adversarial relationship. The show Crossfire, for example, tried to pit two people — one liberal, one conservative — against each other in the hopes of representing the full political spectrum. What resulted was best described by Jon Stewart, who claimed the CNN program, hosted by two “partisan hacks,” was “hurting America.”
This is not to suggest that lively discourse should be jettisoned. Unfortunately, there’s been a perceptible degeneration from Buckley and Vidal to now. Programs on the aforementioned stations spend more time asphyxiating viewers than informing them. In fact, the closest we get to the high-minded repartee of the Buckley/Vidal days is when Stewart appears on The O’Reilly Factor. These episodes, which are infrequent, hint at a show in which two individuals on different sides of the spectrum break bread to talk honestly and openly. Unfathomable as it seems, Stewart and O’Reilly prove that it’s possible to step out of the echo chamber we’ve locked ourselves in.