The August 28th Debate! William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal were polar opposites. Having debated a number of times beginning in 1962, their relationship culminating in 1968 with an explosive series that changed television punditry forever. Buckley and Vidal were both popular American novelists and frequent political commentators. Buckley was a renowned conservative, even starting a magazine to further the cause. And Vidal was a liberal intellectualist whose views were grounded in personal experience. Their debates have been cited as the inspiration for modern sensationalism in television political news programming.
In the late summer of 1968, ABC commissioned eight joint television appearances for the rivals. Four debates took place at the Republican National Convention and four occurred alongside the Democratic Convention. The two men took on all the controversial issues of the day. Both displayed an agile use of language, a wide vocabulary, and quick wit. But it was their second-to-last performance that stole the show. On August 28th on the ABC location set of the DNC, debate turned dirty as Gore Vidal lured Buckley into a state of angst. Tensions were high. Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated and Chicago was at war with itself over the conflict in Vietnam. When Buckley defended the violence displayed by police as they thwarted the effectiveness of peaceful protests, Vidal became angry. He resorted to name-calling, labeling Buckley a "Nazi".
Buckley lost his cool. Ranting and flailing, he admonished Gore Vidal in every way he could muster, prompting the mediator to act as referee on national television. The episode went down in history as a low point for public debate. The men's already strained relationship was no longer workable and the high television ratings following the fight created a culture of cheap-shot debating on tv. After the exchange between Buckley and Vidal, television producers realized that conflict increased viewership. So, rather than encourage productive commentary, television stations began cultivating contrasts and they irreversibly lowered the bar for political debate.
The Buckley and Vidal debates were a turning point for American political television. In the footage, viewers can watch the unbelievable heights to which debate masters can soar. The mastery of language and impromptu dialogue are second to none. Viewers will also see the depths to which great thinkers can sink if they don't stay composed during an exchange. Watch clips from the Buckley and Vidal debates here. And to learn more about ethics in debate or scholastic debating, contact us at the Debate League.