Dery on Vidal vs. Buckley

When Gore Vidal died last month, Xeni posted the classic TV highlight (lowlight?) of the writers' infamous heated exchange on ABD during the 1968 Democratic convention. Over at Las Vegas CityLife, BB contributor Mark Dery dives into that fiery media moment and what it revealed about both men. From Las Vegas CityLife:

The Vidal-Buckley dust-up, dissected ever after by the two combatants and their partisans, is wonderfully instructive. Buckley is at his best, by which I mean his worst — mesmerizing for all the wrong reasons, as he is in his 1969 Firing Line debate with Noam Chomsky on American involvement in Vietnam. In that episode, Buckley is a one-man freakshow of WASP eccentricities, Ivy-League affectations and subliminal seductions, obscenely flicking that reptilian tongue, languorously attenuating the last word in a sentence, flashing a sly wink at Chomsky in mid-debate, flaring his eyes suggestively at the mention of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. (Who knew that a double entendre lurked in the title of that classic book on the admittedly steamy subject of generative grammar?) To the self-assurance of the manor-born and the entitlement of the prep-schooled, Buckley adds an invigorating jigger of weirdness, a snaggletoothed leer that hints at a redeeming depravity behind all that high-church, God and Man at Yale conservatism.

Suddenly, as in the near-knockdown with Vidal, we glimpse a less charming depravity. Prehensile tongue in cheek, Buckley commends Chomsky for his “self-control” in debating the Vietnam question, to which Chomsky jokingly replies, “sometimes I lose my temper; maybe not tonight.” Says Buckley, “Maybe not tonight, because if you would I’d smash you in the goddamn face.” A flash of that awful dentition assures us it’s all in good fun, a wry allusion to the Vidal Affair. But the manic glitter in the eyes, and the thuggishness of the only half-mocking threat, say otherwise.

"A sock in the face: A look back at Gore Vidal’s famous feud"


  1. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to get your ass kicked by Bill Buckley? Oh. My. God. I’d have to lie about who dealt out the beatdown.

    1.  Can you imagine how hard it would be to get your ass kicked by Bill Buckley?  You’d have to prop up his limp fist and run your face at it full speed.  The guy was a milquetoast.

  2. The moment Buckley lost me was when he had Jack Kerouac on “Firing Line” and treated him with utter contempt.  Kerouac was drunk but he wasn’t offensive.  Buckley’s sneering and snickering treatment of him was.  At that point, I realized what a piece of shit Buckley actually was.  

    1. I was twelve years old or so the first time I ever saw Buckley on TV.  Even as a kid, I thought to myself “This is a respected intellectual? Really? He’s just a bully!”

  3. Rightists fight for the people on top to stay on top. They are either bullies, clueless to their own privilege or both. It’s easy to get popular with them, like Buckley did; just get in touch with your inner fascist.

    1. I am not sure that Buckley ever lost touch with his inner fascist. He seems to have had a very very firm handle on that. His dentist, on the other hand . . .

  4. Buckley has been called “the finest mind of the 14th Century.” A terrific insight into him is his memoir Overdrive, which inadvertently details exactly how out of touch he was. The guy was a modern Louis XIV. He once had his limo lengthened by a foot to give people in back more legroom. He detailed the cost and engineering problems, and never gave a thought to the indulgence it displayed.

    I flash on Overdrive whenever Romney shoves his gold foot into his mouth, though Romney is a lot less entertaining about his entitlement than Buckley was.

    1. I was thinking of Romney too….and how easy it was to imagine Buckley forcibly cutting off someone’s hair in prep school.

  5. Just based on this clip, I haven’t seen the rest, it looks to me like Vidal chose to descend to ad hominem name calling and Buckley called him on it. Buckley’s point could have easily answered by simply saying, “They wouldn’t be shooting at Americans if Americans weren’t in their country carrying guns.” Instead, Vidal took the lowest of low roads.

    This exchange wouldn’t have passed muster in my old high school debate club.

    1. Did you miss the part where Buckley implied the Vietnam War protesters were Nazis?  That was the immediate reason for the ad hom (it was in response to Buckley’s ad hom).

  6. Despite all the name calling in the above comments I miss the days when it could be said that Conservative pundits had brains (reptilian though they may be). Give be Buckley over Limbaugh any day. I’d rather spar with an intelligent fascist, than a bigoted ignoramus.

    1. Rush is worse than stupid — he’s smart and PRETENDS to be stupid.

      I pity people like Victoria Jackson.  I do not pity people like Gretchen Carlson.

  7. While Buckley and Chomsky were far apart philosophically, together they illustrate how removed they are from the spirit and substance of political debate today.

  8. Great essay, thanks for the link.

    I always thought that Vidal demonstrated what Buckley failed to realize–a brilliant combination of eloquence and insight consists of more than mere five-dollar words.

  9. …I probably shouldn’t be so surprised that a debate between two heavyweight intellectuals is pretty much identical to that sketch with Louis CK and Greg Giraldo.

    1. The megalomania of the aging despot got a laugh. Either we’ve all gotten much stupider, or that was a terrible laugh track. Actually, I kind of suspect both.

  10. Buckley wasn’t going to punch anyone. Watch the video: Did Vidal look worried? His shit-eating grin says No.

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