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.