Throughout history, there have been countless high-profile debates that exemplify the innovation and mastery of discourse rhetoric. These iconic volleys encapsulate some of the most significant issues and conflicts in history, portraying a variety of views and interpretations that are thought-provoking and, at times, harrowing in their delivery.
Here is a summary of one such meeting, a turbulent debate between political authors Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.
Today’s major political debates tend to toe a line between impassioned, yet constructive discourse and aggressive bloodsport. However, while the art of debate is argumentative and intense by nature, early televised political debates were mostly rooted in an orderly, respectful, and collected approach from all participating individuals. Political debate, at the time, held a fledgling presence on American television sets, and as a result, candidates generally kept themselves tame as they learned to navigate and leverage an uncharted national spotlight.
These traditions all but dissolved in the late 1960s, as political debate rhetoric found its comfort zone on television and subsequently became more venomous. Many point to a particularly nasty 1968 confrontation, between leftist author Gore Vidal and his conservative contemporary William F. Buckley Jr., as “the moment in which American political debate became inflamed with passion and bloody rhetoric.”
Buckley and Vidal met in ninth of 10 debates making up the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The two men, clear ideological foes, already despised each other prior to their prime time meeting, and this notion was obvious from the beginning. The debate began with remarks from both commentators on violence between convention protesters and law enforcement. “There is very little that we can say after those pictures that would be any way adequate,” said Vidal. “It is like living under a Soviet regime here.”
Buckley, on the other hand, pointed out a possible lack of evidence with which to indict all law enforcement officials alleged to have committed violent acts, and in doing so he subtly attacked Vidal’s “regime” analogy. “Go after those cops who were guilty of unnecessary brutality … but don’t do what is happening here in Chicago tonight, which is to infer from individual and despicable acts of violence a case for implicit totalitarianism in the American system.”
As the debate moved to other topics, namely US policy in Vietnam, it became increasingly heated. When discussing American response to the Vietnam War — including the replacement of American flags with Viet Cong flags — Vidal referred to Buckley as a “crypto-nazi,” to which Buckley responded by calling Vidal a “queer.” He then threatened to punch Vidal in the face. Vial also claimed Buckley was an inspiration for Myra Breckinridge, a transgendered literary creation of Vidal’s. From this point, tensions never fully ceased as the debate reached a somewhat off-balance conclusion.
“I thank you very much for the discussion,” said moderator Howard K. Smith at the debate’s end. “It was a little more heat than light than usual, but it was still very worth hearing.”
Smith’s observation essentially sums of the significance of Buckley and Vidal’s debate. Many argue that the debate, while unprecedented in its ugliness, helped to “open the floodgates for today’s opinionated and conflict-driven coverage,” and was therefore an important moment in televised debate history.