I recently finished Gore Vidal’s last memoir, Point to Point Navigation (2006 Vintage International). It was a disappointing read, written by someone who at the end of his life was bitter about nearly everything. Although in fact a very thin book, it took me weeks to complete. My own deliberate stubbornness in having to finish something that I didn’t like very much forced me to soldier on with it anyway (a book has to be absolutely terrible for me to stop reading completely). In spite of this, I am making a note to someday get his earlier memoir, Palimpsest. I want to read the gossipy anecdotes I understand he dishes about the Kennedy family, Truman Capote, Anais Nin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and beat poets Ginsberg and Kerouac. I love chatter even if it’s old as the hills.
In spite of the fact that Point to Point wasn’t much fun to read, I did find myself wonderfully distracted by the people and events Vidal mentioned from his life. Google and YouTube make it so easy to quickly look up someone you’re actually reading about, and I did that constantly. Like eating a proverbial Lay’s potato chip, once I looked at a picture or video, I tended to go to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Before I knew it, I was spending the better part of an hour or more getting sidetracked. It’s a wonderful way to spend time, but the actual book you’re supposed to be reading does become a casualty of sorts, sitting way to the side of the desk and looking very much like a neglected lover.
Eventually I came upon videos of the now infamous debates Vidal had with William F. Buckley at the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. I had already seen over the years the most notorious one in which Buckley famously erupts in anger at Vidal with, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.”
But I had never seen all of the debates from start-to-finish. Watching them in their entirety gave me a broader context in which to consider the players. I now understand the pent-up frustration and anger Buckley must have felt due to Vidal’s unpleasant goading during the on-air encounters. Bleeding-heart liberal that I am, I nevertheless found myself 48 years later cheering Buckley in spite of the gay slur he used against Vidal.
Buckley eventually regretted the exchange; Vidal, I think it’s fair to say, embraced it.¹
But that moment was pretty much an anomaly for 1960’s network news, where decorum and civility was the general rule. This was the era of “Uncle Walter” Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and of course, Howard K. Smith, who had the unenviable job of acting as moderator between Buckley and Vidal. All of the shouting and faux anger to which we are now accustomed on cable networks had yet to be invented. Still, this one moment planted a seed that later spawned The McLaughlin Group, Crossfire, The Ed Show, and the current primetime Fox News and MSNBC schedules.
Oh, Bill, how could you?
During my YouTube wanderings I also watched episodes of Buckley’s old “Firing Line” program. The quality and level of discourse between host and guest seems almost quaint when viewed today. People (mostly) refrained from talking over one another, they spoke in rational and modulated tones, and issues were actually discussed in detail for a viewership that was genuinely interested in a thorough analysis. Granted, Firing Line never garnered huge, blockbuster ratings for the public television stations on which it appeared. Those who watched it were probably very similar, demographically speaking, with viewers today who might be partial to PBS’ Washington Week in Review, CBS’ Sunday Morning, or CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
The primary difference, though, is that Buckley was a dean of American conservatism. Firing Line, along with his National Review magazine, was considered the holy grail of the conservative movement, and those who harbored national political ambitions had their work cut out for them in order to obtain Buckley’s approval. You had to be at the top of your intellectual game if you appeared on his show. When I see Bill O’Reilly making his milk shake bets with Donald Trump, I do have to wonder if Buckley isn’t somehow rolling over in his grave this year.
Except for the current programs I mentioned above, I really don’t turn to television or much radio to keep current about elections anymore. The yelling and faux-outrage turn me off, and more than anything it’s also the shallowness of the coverage and the resulting conversation. Where broadcast news once helped us to make informed decisions, we are now left with little more than repetitious soliloquies recycled from candidates’ attack ads or their Twitter feeds. Those broadcasters who do try to get beyond such programmed responses (John Dickerson, Megyn Kelly, and Steve Inskeep, for example) they fight an uphill battle over reason and logic. I commend them for trying, but they still tend to lose that battle.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, I have basically waved the white flag of surrender for any hope in garnering an understanding of the upcoming election via television. I instead will focus on print journalists and commentators for perspective. Those voices are E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, and Leonard Pitts, Jr. to name just a few. I also recommend foreign sources such as the addictive France 24 Live and the Guardian Newspaper.
I wish you well in surviving the onslaught of the election wherever you live. Here in Florida we have a primary in two weeks, and I am bracing for the robo-calls and barrage of negative ads that will soon begin to hit our phones and airwaves. I am not looking forward to it at all.
For those who actually see political ads as a source for reliable information, I beg you to just stop for a moment and consider that you are an intelligent human being. Surely you can find a more independent way to inform yourself other than from campaign advertisements. Free speech, as they like to refer to it, can run both ways if you stop and think about it for a moment. Don’t be passive, seek out other, independent sources!
I promise that the usual form of imbecility you’ve come to expect on this blog will return in the very next post.
Until next time…
¹ Those interested might wish to watch the 2015 documentary about the Vidal/Buckley encounter called “Best of Enemies.”