The End of the Affair: Erotic hatred in ‘The Best of Enemies’

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Having been liberal on a cellular level all my life, I vowed that I would never give aid or comfort – specifically my sexual favours – to someone holding politically conservative opinions. The one exception to that was William F. Buckley; I always found both his mannerisms and his intellect extremely seductive, even as disagreed vehemently with most of what he said. Meanwhile, I’ve always been in awe of Gore Vidal. Particularly for his ability to mix political and social satire and eroticism.

So, viewing the recently made documentary on the Buckley-Vidal debates, broadcast on ABC as commentary on the 1968 political conventions was always going to draw me. Their exchanges culminated in this exchange which both scarred both men for the rest of their lives.

Vidal calls Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley loses it, calls Vidal queer on national television and threatens to ‘sock him in the face’. Ah, the days when resorting to epithets meant you’d lost! Now it’s what you open with.

The thing is, this was 1968. Buckley can’t possibly have been a stranger or emotionally unprepared to be called a ‘crypto-Nazi’. Similarly, this was long before political correctness. Gore Vidal must have been called a ‘goddamned queer’ more times that he could count. I simply don’t buy that either man was unmoored or mortally offended by the words themselves, but by the man who delivered them.

For his part, I think Buckley was ashamed of himself for losing his cool. In fact, he later went on to admit as much. The question is why it was possible for Vidal to push him into losing it? The erotic writer in me sees, in Buckley’s hatred of Vidal, a sublimation of a strong, visceral attraction.

For Vidal’s part, he really won his point. The topic leading up to the outburst was the brutality of the state actors at the Chicago convention. In pushing Buckley to slurs and threatened violence, he got his ideological opponent to literally make his point for him. He was victorious. And yet it is said that he carried the wound of that exchange permanently, watching a videotape of that debate over and over, for years afterwards. I think his feelings on it must have been very complicated, very ambiguous. Like Buckley, I think he was also sublimating a deep attraction – because admitting it would have been against his political orientation.

That debate was the stuff of wonderful erotic conflict. It’s a thin line between love and hate and, simmering beneath the urbane surface of those televised exchanges, I see an example of how libidinal hatred often is. Of how erotically charged philosophical and political debate used to be. I see what we’ve lost.

I highly recommend the documentary as an examination of the evolution of televised political discourse in the US, for the pleasurable spectacle of watching two highly intelligent men use language with enough rhetorical elegance to make you weep. But most of all, I invite you to speculate on the river of desire running beneath it.

The Best of Enemies is directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, and is available for streaming various places, including Amazon VideoVudu, and in other locations.

  4 comments for “The End of the Affair: Erotic hatred in ‘The Best of Enemies’

  1. TFP
    January 3, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    …for the pleasurable spectacle of watching two highly intelligent men use language with enough rhetorical elegance to make you weep.

    This certainly was fun to watch the heat and subsequent boil over. I believe there’s still an erotic charge occurring today but what’s missing in televised debates is the ‘highly intelligent’ aspect.

  2. Jane Anne
    January 3, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    I remember this encounter very well and suspect you are spot on in terms of subliminal attraction between formidable opponents. Debate at such a level isintoxicating. I wonder also about another issue, the habits of mind created by some private schools, some universities. The “contest” between such minds calls for a distinctly sexual throw down, mental muscle wrestling.

  3. January 4, 2016 at 2:06 am

    I am so glad you recommended this documentary as I watched it today after reading your post. I will be honest and admit my knowledge on American politics is sketchy and I had never heard of William Buckley but talk about the two men mirroring each other, they were the left and right equivalents of each other and hate is often allied with love.

    Thank you

  4. ST
    January 31, 2017 at 9:15 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of this exchange! I’m not quite sure I see the erotic charge you mention [you know how lousy men are at noticing these things!] but it’s certainly charged; it’s amazing how free they are and yet how civilised; modern debates both sides of the English-speaking Atlantic look pretty sorry in comparison.

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