Abandoning the “gavel to gavel” coverage of the leading networks, ABC decided to draw on the commenting class as a long-shot play for ratings. By bringing Buckley and Vidal together, the network inadvertently inaugurated the modern era of television punditry. In his Esquire essay, Buckley recounts that in the fall of 1967, the network approached him with the idea for a debate. ABC asked who else should appear with him. Buckley suggested Arthur Schlesinger, Kenneth Galbraith, or Norman Mailer: “I wouldn’t refuse to appear alongside any non-Communist, I said—as a matter of principle; but I didn’t want to appear opposite Gore Vidal . . . Vidal’s political philosophy is, I discovered fairly early in our association, elusive.”
Vidal, for his part, had no such reservations. Believing that one should never turn down “sex and appearing on television,” Vidal entered the debates not to criticize Republican policy but to attack Buckley personally. A best-selling author and blueblood avatar of the rising, libidinous New Left, Vidal saw himself as a fiddler for America’s burning empire. His scandalous 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge featured a transsexual protagonist who rapes men with a strap-on dildo. The plotline may not have been far from Vidal’s mind as he prepared for Buckley, writing out one-liner attacks and testing them on the ABC crew. He also suspected that Buckley would be ill-prepared for the assault, which he was. Buckley was a champion debater, but Vidal was a gutter fighter. Buckley was fresh off a sailing cruise and prepared only to discuss the Republican platform. When the bell rang, Vidal pushed him on onto his heels. Buckley then snapped back onto his toes. Vidal’s sparring style was to “let the guy lean forward so he falls over,” observes the writer James Wolcott. It’s telling that Vidal claimed a lineage going back to Aaron Burr, the subject of one of his historical novels, even if the connection was only through his step-father.