It's like watching the 'Thrilla in Manila,' except with words."
That's what Tom Graves, an assistant professor of literature and humanities at LeMoyne-Owen College, says about the infamous series of 1968 televised debates between conservative leader William F. Buckley and progressive man of letters Gore Vidal. The debates were broadcast live by ABC News as part of its presidential convention coverage that year but will reappear — for perhaps the first time since, at least in their entirety — in Memphis this week when Graves hosts a screening at the Brooks Museum of Art.
Graves, an author whose most recent book is Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, has been fascinated by Vidal and Buckley since his days as a freshman journalism student at then Memphis State University in the early '70s.
"My politics were naturally on the left and pretty much always have been," Graves says. "But at the same time, I admired Buckley's eloquence, his ability to debate, his dry wit."
About five years ago, Graves set out to find a copy of the famous debates, which had all but disappeared, in order to write a stage drama based on Buckley and Vidal, in the mode of Frost/Nixon. About two years ago, Graves finally obtained a copy from a relative of Vidal's, who gave him permission to screen them.
Graves has completed and is shopping his stage play based on the debates, but he is screening the full debates this week in conjunction with LeMoyne-Owen's honors week. Though there are snippets of the debates on YouTube and in a documentary about the late Buckley, Graves believes this week's Memphis screening will be the first time the debates have been shown in their entirety since the initial live broadcast.
When ABC producers paired Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review and later godfather to the so-called Reagan Revolution, with Vidal, a writer then best known for his political play The Best Man and his satiric novel Myra Breckenridge, they likely expected a lively and erudite exchange of opposing political views. They got that, but they also got some unexpected fireworks.
The most famous moment in the series of eight debates — broadcast from the Republican convention in Miami and then the historically contentious Democratic convention in Chicago — occurs during the seventh meeting of two men who clearly didn't much like one another.
In the midst of an increasingly heated exchange about the role and treatment of Vietnam War protesters in Chicago, Buckley tries to interrupt Vidal, who tells him to "shut up" with a dismissive wave. When Vidal responds to Buckley's characterization of war protests by labeling Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," Buckley fires back.
"Now listen, you queer," Buckley snaps, leaning into Vidal. "Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." Then, referencing Myra Breckenridge, which concerns transexuality, he tells Vidal to "go back to your pornography."
The explosive moment is the culmination of long-simmering tension that is palpable from the first debate, when Buckley attacks Vidal for maintaining a residence in Europe, and Vidal responds by labeling Buckley "passionate and irrelevant." By the third meeting, Buckley is accusing Vidal of being "a literary producer of perverted, Hollywood-minded prose" and Vidal is calling Buckley "the Marie Antoinette of the right wing ... imposing your own bloodthirsty neurosis" on American politics.
"The two of them both said they didn't want to debate each other," Graves says. "'Anybody but Vidal.' 'Anybody but Buckley.' But, deep down, I think they really wanted to. I think each one thought they would outdo the other one. And I think it's obvious right off the bat that they were out for blood. They wanted to score points. They wanted to win."
This mutual disdain didn't fade. Dueling Esquire essays following the ABC debates led to a libel suit from Buckley, who died in 2008 at age 82.
"When Buckley died, people were after Vidal for some kind of statement," Graves says. "And the last words of what he wrote were 'WFB-RIP — in hell.'"
The exchange of poison-dart retorts is what has survived of the Buckley-Vidal debate, but what most don't remember is that Buckley's meltdown was preceded by discussion of the constitutional rights of assembly in which Buckley quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes off-the-cuff.
Juicy name-calling aside, Buckley-Vidal was political discourse at a level rarely given such prominence today, and the debate is resonant in multiple ways.
"One of the interesting things about these debates is we have 40 years to reflect on what these guys had to say," says Graves, who points out just how much the politics of 1968 reverberates today as Buckley and Vidal debate the difficulties of empire and the dangers of military adventurism, the proper balance of free-market capitalism and the federal government, and the propriety of political dissent.
Though Buckley had a larger impact in his own time, with his direct role in the rise of Reagan, and though Vidal was proven wrong in his prediction of the rise of a permanent alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties, it is Vidal who seems most prescient.
Vidal's opening line in the first debate: "I cannot possibly imagine Richard Nixon as the president of the United States. I think he is essentially the Hollow Man." By the last debate, he was ruefully predicting a Nixon victory.
But Buckley-Vidal resonates as much in form as content: Emblems of their respective ideologies, Buckley and Vidal were also representatives of a dying species: the public intellectual. These days, the television equivalent is more likely to be Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh.
"These were almost like Renaissance men," Graves says. "They've been replaced by the shouters — guys with nowhere near their intellectual gifts who have to rely on soundbites. It's all staged for television now, and most of these guys haven't written much of substance outside of television."
One of the debates is introduced thusly by moderator Howard K. Smith: "On this first day on the floor at the Republican convention, we've heard a few all-right speeches and quite a few ho-hum-type speeches. We would like now to demonstrate how the English language ought to be used, by two craftsmen."
Buckley and Vidal don't disappoint on this score. When Vidal pounds Nixon on civil rights and social policy, Buckley's eyes flare as only his could and he retorts, "I have no doubt there's somebody in Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village who considers your caricature fetching. I don't."
Later, following a particularly ornate savaging from Buckley, Vidal just smiles and compliments his opponent's "elegant prose style." There's a glint of sarcasm there — but also honest appreciation.
"That's great entertainment to me," Graves says. "I find it fascinating."
The Buckley-Vidal Debates
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, April 16th
7 p.m.; $5