William F. Buckley vs. Gore Vidal: New Doc Pits Traditional Values against Moral Relativism
The engaging new documentary pits belief in objective truth against the cultural and moral relativism of the 1960s.
For my money, few public personalities of the past half century better epitomize thoughtful conservatism than the late William F. Buckley. Founder of National Review, author of countless columns and numerous books, and the possessor of a personality that had the potential to endear him to East Coast elitists and Red State Americans alike, Buckley was a force to be reckoned with for many decades.
Buckley believed in things like God, the positive role of America in history, the existence of good and evil, and the dangers of moral relativism and apathy.
One of his chief ideological opponents throughout his career was the novelist Gore Vidal. Vidal was a Postmodernist, atheist, progressive who championed the dictum, “The only golden rule is that there is no golden rule.”
In a time before cable news, and primarily set during the 1968 Presidential Elections, Buckley and Vidal squared off in a series of live, televised debates in what became legendary rhetorical clashes between two men representing two very different worldviews. A new documentary film, Best of Enemies, does a compelling job of capturing the time, place, and stakes involved.
Neither man was perfect. Even fans of William F. Buckley may cringe a bit when they hear some of the language he used in doing verbal battle with Gore Vidal. But a moment of weakness and anger does not mean that someone’s argument must automatically be discredited.
The important thing to examine and contrast in the story told in Best of Enemies is the underlying life philosophy each man espoused. When we do this, we find Vidal’s to be empty, self-centered and morally unhinged. Buckley’s on the other hand, is a view of the world built upon faith, family, personal responsibility, civic duty and gratitude. Again, just because both men were sometimes sarcastic or uncivil with each other does not mean we are to throw our hands up and say, “Oh well, they raised their voices, so I better discount everything being said.”
For those, like myself, who were not alive during the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and ’70s, simply hearing second-hand accounts of what it was like “back then” can grow stale and detached. But Best of Enemies does a stellar job of bringing the audience into a pivotal time and contentious place in our nation’s recent history.
The battles between objective truth and moral relativism rage on today. In many instances, you will hear Buckley and Vidal debating cultural trends that have now come to fruition and it is easy to see who was right and who was wrong in their predictions.
One thing is certain after screening this enjoyable film: we don’t simply need “another Bill Buckley” today.
We need 10,000 of them.