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How Buckley and Vidal invented today’s culture wars

How Buckley and Vidal invented today’s culture wars

A new play by master dramatist James Graham shows how the legendary debates of 1968 between the two US polemicists changed politics forever

A few years back, the young playwright James Graham – fresh from his triumph with This House – asked me to lunch to talk about politics. I have two very clear memories of the occasion.

First, that a brilliant dramatist in the foothills of their creative journey fizzes with unmistakable potential energy: I recall wondering what it must have been like to meet Joe Orton, or John Osborne, or Tom Stoppard in their early years. 

Second, I had established before the starters arrived that there was nothing much that I could tell this remarkable writer about the political world that he hadn’t already worked out for himself (and then some).

James Graham’s This House at the National Theatre, 2012

In principle, This House, which opened at the National in 2012, was a ridiculous idea – exploring, as it did, the complex and often technical parliamentary machinations of the Labour government and Tory opposition between 1974 and 1979. Yet Graham revealed himself to be a theatrical alchemist, turning unpromising lead into dramatic gold: an action-packed play that had more in common with a Feydeau farce than the dour pages of Hansard.

Since then, he has – in my view, at least – established himself as the leading political playwright of our times, in dramas such as The Angry Brigade (2014), The Vote (2015), Coalition (2015), Monster Raving Loony (2016) and, most notably, Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019), in which Benedict Cumberbatch effectively transformed himself in the national imagination from Sherlock into Dominic Cummings. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

In The Queen (2006), The Audience (2013) and The Crown (2016-) Peter Morgan has more or less cornered the market in royal dramatisation. In The Absence of War (1993), Stuff Happens (2004), Gethsemane (2008) and other works, David Hare has demonstrated time and again the power of a master playwright who picks up a notebook and puts what he hears (and what it means) onto the stage.

But Graham has the edge as a political chronicler and cultural archaeologist – partly because he is less overtly polemical than some of his competitors, and partly because his dramatic style is more nuanced and character-driven.

He is also adventurous by temperament, often pitching his writer’s tent on unpredictable terrain. Witness Quiz (2017), Graham’s play about the coughing scandal that surrounded Charles Ingram’s £1,000,000 win on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2001.

James Graham at The Duke of York’s Theatre for a showing of his play Ink

Now, in Best of Enemies (Young Vic, 4 December – 22 January, dir. Jeremy Herrin) he has turned his attention to the legendary television debates between William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democrat conventions. 

The play borrows its title from the brilliant 2015 documentary account of the ten-round prime-time bout, directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville.  Charles Edwards – recently seen in The Crown as Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary – takes the part of Vidal, the aristocratic, arch-liberal author and commentator, while Buckley, the deeply conservative founder of the National Review magazine, is played by David Harewood (anyone silly enough to think that the casting of an actor of colour as Buckley, who was a segregationist in his early years, is some sort of gimmick, has not paid attention to Harewood’s extraordinary talent, presence and authority as a performer on screen and stage).

David Harewood and Charles Edwards during rehearsals for Best of Enemies

Why return to televised debates that took place more than half a century ago? Part of the answer is that the conventions of 1968 – from which Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey emerged as the respective presidential candidates of the GOP and the Democrats – were occasions of historical ferocity, orbited by violence, protests and an atmosphere of dangerous polarisation. (For a sense of their significance, see, for instance, Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and Hunter S. Thompson’s dispatches from the front line).

The corollary was an unheralded transformation in the way political television was produced. ABC News, trailing badly behind its competitors, decided to ditch the traditional “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the conventions – televising the proceedings from beginning to end – and to find new ways of bringing life and commercial entertainment value to their programming.

ABC archive footage included in The Best of Enemies, dir. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, 2015

Buckley versus Vidal was the “Rumble in the Jungle” of American commentary: the two men loathed one another, and considered themselves to be engaged in an existential battle for the soul of the American republic. Vidal believed in sexual freedom, bringing the Vietnam War to an end, and the responsibility of government to alleviate poverty. Buckley was no less passionately convinced that America was losing its way, as it forgot the saving power of religion, of individualism and of patriotism (for more on this, check out Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America).

The ten encounters – transcribed usefully in this 2015 book – represent a cultural and historical hinge. In one sense, they are unrecognisably old-fashioned: two grand public intellectuals, quoting Pericles and engaging in the arch one-upmanship of the blueblood salon.

On the other hand, you can see a rough beast stirring and scratching the ground with growling impatience. For all their debating society etiquette, these two men absolutely want to destroy one another, and what the other stands for. The needling, insinuation and provocation escalated – until the third day of the Democrat convention, 28 August, when Vidal finally got Buckley to lose his composure:

Vidal: As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself – failing that, I would only say that we can’t have…

Howard K Smith (moderator): Let’s stop calling names…

Buckley: Now listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face and you’ll stay plastered!

In those few seconds of mortifying, abusive, gutter television, the modern era of culture wars was born. In the immediate aftermath, nobody, not even the protagonists, could quite believe that such an exchange had been broadcast live on network television. 

What soon became apparent, however, was that the bust-up was not a catastrophe at all. It was an absolute sensation. In a few sentences, two fantastically erudite commentators had gone rogue and invented an entirely new form of television: theatrical, brutal, and divisive by design.

William Buckley and Gore Vidal’s Convention Coverage, August 1968

Vidal’s incitement and Buckley’s explosion paved the way for Point Counterpoint, Crossfire and countless other adversarial political talk shows. To this day, such programmes present themselves as bringers of light; but it is the heat they generate that ensures their commercial revenues.

The Vidal-Buckley debates were held a full 21 years before the invention of the World Wide Web, and 38 before the launch of Twitter. Yet, in their venomous exchanges, the two men of letters had unwittingly anticipated – and paved the way for – the world of political warfare in 280-character posts.

Buckley believed in conservatism as a national movement that would redeem America. Vidal, author of such great historical fiction as Burr, Lincoln and Empire, styled himself as the “biographer” of the nation. Yet their joint bequest – and how ironic that it should be one that they made together – was to show clever people how to hate each other via mass communication.

To an extent that could scarcely have been predicted in 1968, but that James Graham has identified and dramatised, they were the founding fathers of modern political discourse, the ancestors of today’s digital warriors. Scrolling hectically through limitless screeds of invective, driven apart by algorithm and antipathy, we are all, in our way, the children of Bill and Gore.


C’mon C’mon (3 December, general release)

So used have we become to the pyrotechnic brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix – his frightening exploration of cult membership in The Master (2012), portrayal of psychosis in You Were Never Really Here (2017), and murderous Oscar-winning performance in Joker (2019) – that it is easy to forget how magnificent he is in more understated roles. In Mike Mills’s black-and-white gem, he is Johnny, a New York radio producer, compelled by a family crisis to look after his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). The format of the child subtly teaching the emotionally arrested adult is familiar enough (True Grit, Paper Moon, Man on Fire, Manchester by the Sea), but Phoenix and Norman breathe fresh life into old tropes with a remarkable naturalism and emotional candour. A film about family, maturity and the unsought arrival of personal responsibility that should not be missed.

Voir (6 December, Netflix)

Many debut directors would simply never have recovered from the creative trauma of making Alien 3 (1992) – or, more accurately, being denied the chance to make the movie they had imagined. But David Fincher is made of tougher stuff. His response to this dreadful start was to make a series of masterly movies: Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), The Social Network (2010) and last year’s Oscar-nominated Mank (see Creative Sensemaker, 3 December 2020) – not to mention his involvement in House of Cards (2013-18), Mindhunter (2017-19), and a prospective prequel series for Netflix based on Chinatown (a collaboration with Robert Towne, writer of the original movie’s screenplay). And now, in its turn, we have Voir: classic, unexpected Fincher, overseeing a series of 10-30 minute essays on the meaning, emotional impact and cultural significance of film. “A show about film appreciation and about movies that I love, with guests I love, about movies that they love,” is how he described it in March. Which sounds straightforward enough – though one can be absolutely certain that it won’t be anything of the kind.

Stillwater (video on demand)

Eclipsed on its theatrical release by a social media row over the extent to which director Tom McCarthy had simply lifted the story of Amanda Knox – definitively acquitted in 2015 of the murder of her flatmate Meredith Kercher in Perugia – and transplanted it to Marseille, Stillwater merits a second viewing now on streaming platforms. Matt Damon is excellent as Bill Baker, an unemployed oil rig roughneck and construction worker from Oklahoma, as single-minded as he is out of his depth, who heads to France to help his imprisoned daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin, also terrific) and clear her of the murder of roommate, Lena. Aided by Camille Cottin – Andréa Martel in Call My Agent – Bill seeks to unravel a story full of psychological complexity, deceit and resentment, conscious that he is deep in terra incognita. Stillwater is the name of the family’s hometown – but doubles up as a way of signalling the brutal currents that often lurk beneath the placid surface of traditional Americana.


Christmas Poems – Carol Ann Duffy (Picador)

During her tenure as Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy wrote ten annual poems about Christmas, here collected for the first time. In the course of a decade, she whisked her readers from the spectacle of Scrooge’s widow (“sat googling at her desk”); via the Christmas truce of 1914 (“the guns were quiet./ The dead lay still in No Man’s Land – Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank…/ The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.”); to “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday” and Pablo Picasso walking with his dog “under the cypress trees” as “the bell of the old chapel guessed at the hour” on Christmas Eve. The illustrations – by David De Las Heras, Rob Ryan, Lara Hawthorne and others – are beautiful, too, complementing perfectly the range and acuity of Duffy’s poetic imagination. (To hear her discussing her writing, watch back this Thinkin from January.)

All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business – Mel Brooks (Century)

“You don’t hit the kid that makes you laugh” – which is how the young Mel Brooks got started in comedy in Brooklyn. Now 95, he writes in this memoir that laughter “is a protest scream against death, against the long goodbye.” In this sense, his humour has been a form of lifelong resistance against perils great and small. But it has also given him a fantastic life, and one that makes for breezy and very funny reading. As director of The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (both 1974), and Silent Movie (1976), Brooks had assured his place in the history of comedy more than 40 years ago. But his memoir is just as interesting on what came before – the work with Sid Caesar, his legendary 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner – and on his more recent work. Forty one years after the joyously juvenile History of the World Part I, Hulu has just ordered a sequel. And in this, there is a magic that only the true greats of show business can supply: a comic old enough to have got his start as a “pool tummler”, keeping the guests round the hotel pool amused, teaming up with a streaming giant to continue a series of jokes launched when VHS video recorders still seemed hyper-modern. An incredible story of shtick turned into immortal culture – and one that is far from over.

Essays Two – Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton)

As George Steiner, Umberto Eco, and William Weaver have all argued, translation is much more than the mechanical transposition of writing from one language into another. It is, as Lydia Davis writes in this exquisite collection, a creative practice in which “you are working in partnership with the author; you are not as alone as you usually are when writing your own work”. Hence, the first essay is entitled ‘Twenty-One Pleasures of Translating (and a Silver Lining)’. What Davis – also a celebrated writer of short stories and novels, who won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize – loves about this particular form of literary art is that it brings her into deep communion with the greatest authors of the past: especially Proust, who holds a special place in her heart. Imagine, she writes, the curiosity of the apartment where he wrote great swathes of À la recherche du temps perdu, now the offices of a bank: an “imaginative financier with a little information might be haunted, sitting next to the lone potted plant, by the lingering ghostly presence of a crowded accumulation of heavy fin de siècle furniture and bric-a-brac, imbued with Proust’s personal associations.” What might, in other hands, have been a dry and technical compilation of papers is an absorbing inquiry into the very nature of literature.


Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) – David Bowie

This fifth boxed set of Bowie’s work embraces what many regard as his true wilderness years, the decade of Britpop in which Ziggy Stardust appeared to drift further than at any other time towards cultural irrelevance. In fact, these assembled albums – including the long-lost Toy (2001), in which he re-recorded early songs from the Sixties – strengthen the revisionist case that Bowie was thinking as deeply and creatively as ever in the final years of the last century, preparing a last act that began with his triumphant Glastonbury set in 2000. Listen again to 1 Outside (1995), which reunited him with Brian Eno, and hear a true innovator still restlessly preoccupied by the connective tissue between the avant garde and mainstream pop. In Earthling (1997), he was experimenting boldly with drum’n’bass; just as the earlier soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) now reveals itself to be an overlooked gem of electronica. As so often, the passing of the years reveals the dynamics of genius that were less visible at the time. It was in Bowie’s irrepressible nature to confound, explore, and confront. Putting out fire with gasoline? He couldn’t help himself.

Amata Dalle Tenebre – Anna Netrebko, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Riccardo Chailly

A dazzling collection of verismo arias by the Russian soprano recorded at La Scala, Amata Dalle Tenebre features works by Strauss, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, Purcell and Cilea. A superstar of the global operatic circuit, Netrebko was able to carve out time during the long closures of the pandemic to record this, her first solo album in five years. “Amata dalle tenebre is a poetic Italian phrase that means “beloved by the shadow”,” she has said. “I think this shadow personifies everything together: death, illness, depression; that is, everything that the shadow symbol itself stands for.” Her voice has never sounded richer or more versatile, and the choice of arias is excellent.

Remedy Meets Wu-Tang

Staten Island-born MC-producer Remedy (aka Reuven Ben Menachem) is the descendant of Holocaust survivors and has long brought the history and tradition of his Jewish roots to bear on his music. In spite of the title of his fourth album, his association with the Wu-Tang Clan stretches back to the platinum-selling Wu-Tang Killa Bees: The Swarm (1998). Produced by Danny Caiazzo and Remedy himself, these 14 tracks boast collaborations with Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, Method Man, and others. This is unabashed gangsta rap, with few concessions to the mellower subgenres that have followed – and its implacable energy makes this one of the best hip-hop albums of the year.

and finally: thanks to Sebastian Jones for his recommendation of Xhosa Cole’s debut album, K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us 

“In the depths of Covid, Ostrich Records was founded to distribute some of the finest second-hand and newly released records – with a particular focus on funk, soul and jazz from primarily black American artists. As well as slinging records, they host events with some of jazz and soul’s finest upcoming talent. 

Their most recent event was held in East London at The Jago. Guests were graced with a stunning performance from Xhosa Cole (tenor saxophone and 2018 BBC Young Jazz Musician of the year), Josh Videveloo (double bass), and Jeff Williams (drums and veteran of the scene, having played with Lee Konitz and Stan Getz through the Seventies). 

They took listeners on a journey through some of Xhosa’s new songs from his album as well as creative renditions of Thelonius Monk, Nat King Cole and other Jazz legends; ‘Played Twice’, ‘Almost like being in love’, ‘Trinkle Tinkle’, ‘Round Midnight (solo)’, among others. You can read a review in the Ostrich Records journal.

Xhosa’s debut album: K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us (based on the words by the great Dizzy Gillespie about Louis Armstrong – “no him, no me”) features special guest appearances from fellow Birmingham-raised musicians – MOBO-winning saxophonist Soweto Kinch and celebrated pianist Reuben James. As Cole explains, “this album acknowledges the shoulders on which all of the musicians in the bandstand as one. To understand me and my music is to understand all the amazing teachers and musicians who have helped me along this path – without the greats who helped to forge this journey over half a century ago we wouldn’t be lucky enough to be walking in their footsteps today.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy Young Vic, Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images, Channel 4, AP/Shutterstock, Wasi Daniju/Young Vic, Magnolia Pictures, Walt Disney Television via Getty Images, Netflix, New Line Cinema via Getty Images, Universal Pictures, Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images