The year is 1968. The United States is in turmoil. There is strong disagreement over the Vietnam War, Civil Rights debates are in full swing, Robert Kennedy was recently assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson has chosen not to seek re-election.
The Democrat primary is approaching. And ABC is about to be outdone by its two larger competitors with deeper pockets: CBS and NBC, as is detailed by the movie “The Best of Enemies.” While the two larger news giants are going to cover the convention gavel to gavel, ABC has decided on a more unorthodox approach: have a debate between a well-known conservative and a well-known liberal. ABC decides it just doesn’t have the money or resources to cover the conventions like its two larger competitors do, so choose unconventional approach is chosen.
By today’s standards, the two debaters would seem overly elitist, too posh, and dry.
The conservative was William Buckley, Jr., host of the public affairs show Firing Line and founder of the magazine National Review. The liberal was Gore Vidal, author of the provocative “Myra Breckinridge,” about a transgender woman who had a sex change operation. (Controversial stuff for back then.)
Buckley would be considered very civil compared to today’s conservative radio hosts and TV commentators. He hosted many shows featuring liberals and people from all walks of life, calmly talking with those he disagreed with, although at times he and his liberal guests would rib each other.
Today the Vidal-Buckley debate style would seem a bit academic and even polite (for the most part). Not so for back then.
During the 1968 Democrat Convention, ABC discoveres a gold mine.
At one moment during the debate, Vidal tries to provoke Buckley and calls him a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley loses it and replies with a: “Now listen, you _____, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your _____ face, and you’ll stay plastered.”
It’s an embarrassment for Buckley, lawsuits follow later, etc., but …
ABC has a realization: debates get viewers! Debates are more interesting than conventions.
This is not the first time television or anyone else has realized that debates sell. However, this incident has been recognized for impacting debate and the monetization of political theater for the last few decades.
After those conventions, other networks followed ABC’s example.
Although the heated exchanged between Vidal and Buckley mentioned above is probably the most memorable part, the debate is not all bad. Actually, it is a good idea to have two smart people with different perspectives sit and talk for a while. Buckley’s “Firing Line” lasted for 33 years, consisting of many conversations with people from all types of viewpoints.
In fact, he befriended people such as liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith and Democrat presidential candidate George McGovern, often regarded as one of the most liberal candidates ever for president.
His heated interaction with Vidal was an anomaly for someone like Buckley.
One of the lessons we can learn from the Vidal-Buckley debate is that just about anyone can “lose it” in the heat of the moment. We are all emotional creatures, and any one of us can respond inappropriately when we disagree with someone.
But that doesn’t mean we should avoid these conversations.
We tend to look favorably on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and consider them historical not just for the topics being discussed but also for adding to the political discourse in our nation. (You can watch a 1994 re-enactment of these debates on C-Span.)
Longer 30-minute or hour-long conversations are ideal for debate or conversation. And although the rapid soundbite news media format we witness today usually is not ideal, it can serve a purpose.
Today, we see pundits talking endlessly. News programs are often known for their commentators more than their news anchors, and viewers often have a hard time differentiating between the news and opinion.
Opinion sells and gains viewers.
Fast forward half a century, and now with social media we don’t have to rely on just political pundits alone to debate.
Anyone of us with a social media account can start a conversation.
We can see our own friends and family debating, and we don’t even have to pay a cable bill to watch these debates.
Many good people don’t feel comfortable with these debates and often bemoan the lack of civility. But sometimes what people mistake as “lack of civility” is just healthy debate.
While it’s certainly true that many people are often rude on social media and elsewhere, many of the debates and conversations are good.
In our country, as a constitutional republic, it’s the responsibility of all of us to elect officials and to have a say in our policy and government. We don’t just have to rely on the “experts” for everything, nor should we expect our elected officials to rule over us or decide everything.
It’s our responsibility and obligation to vote. And if we are to vote, it is our duty to stay informed.
And it’s perfectly fine — if not desired — to have discussions with those we don’t agree with. It would be boring and unhealthy if we always agreed. We don’t need to disagree less or talk less about politics and religion. We need to learn how to have these conversations. Avoidance is one of the worst options.
High schools and colleges teach people how to reason and debate, and it’s good that they do. It’s also a positive that we don’t just have to watch Ivy League educated people debate on television, but that we can do that individually today on our on social media pages.
Debating can be ugly, but it can also be a beautiful reminder that we live in a country that allows free expression.
Sure, there will be times someone will get upset and say something unprofessional — just like Vidal and Buckley did in 1968.
But the fact that we can go on social media and freely debate public policy or current events is a sign of freedom and health in our constitutional republic.
And when we debate, in our own small way we are participating in our country’s democratic process.
So by all means, be civil. But don’t avoid debate; embrace it. Because when you do, in your own small way, you are contributing to the process in our constitutional republic.