The antics of the current election season have many Americans skeptically weighing the value of issues and entertainment in media coverage. In reality, “entertainment politics” has been the norm since the 1968 campaign, though likely having roots much earlier. The Alexander Hamilton Institute Undergraduate Fellows (AHI) explored the history of such politicking with a screening of the 2015 documentary Best of Enemies and a panel discussion. Panelists were David Frisk, a resident fellow of the AHI; Hamilton Government Professor Phil Klinkner; History Professor Maurice Isserman; and moderator was History Professor Robert Paquette.
Best of Enemies examines a defining moment in the history of entertainment politics: 10 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. The debates were aired during an era when Americans had the utmost confidence in TV news and in its portrayal of “what America was -- white, Anglo-Saxon, and centrist.” Then ABC, which appeared to be destined to last place for ratings and viewership, decided to take a gamble and offer what it called “unconventional convention coverage.”
Compared with CBS and NBC, which offered uninterrupted coverage of the conventions, ABC maintained its regular programming with the exception of a 90-minute block reserved for politics. ABC therefore avoided losing advertising money that “conventional coverage” had to absorb, and simultaneously appealed to many Americans who wanted a dose of politics. From the outset, and with the intention of boosting ratings, ABC knew that the dichotomically opposed pundits would provide entertainment; however, few could’ve predicted how thoroughly it degenerated or its lasting legacy.
The two men were ideologically opposites, Vidal expressing vehemence for the growth of the American empire, and Buckley urging Americans to return to Anglo-Saxon conservatism. Buckley openly despised Vidal but agreed to produce the ABC segment with him because “Buckley liked people who are real characters even if he didn’t respect them,” Frisk explained. “Rusher [Buckley’s publisher] tried to warn Buckley that whatever he didn’t like about Vidal would rub off on him to some extent if they went on air together, but also described Buckley as ‘a tremendous risk-taker,’” Frisk continued.
Despite political distance, Klinkner pointed out that “both pundits talked about democracy but were deeply elitist. Their language is quite elevated in these debates despite the fact that the population was not at that level.” Isserman continued this thought: “We saw two aristocrats who were good at getting under each other’s skins because they came from a similar background. Buckley was well-connected among both parties, while Vidal was more of a popular icon, making them an asymmetrical pairing in that regard.”
Although Vidal gained notoriety for his literary works, he did not experience the support from the left as Buckley did from the right. “Vidal was well regarded as an essayist, but not a politician,” Klinkner said, “and he mostly fell out of the American public eye after these debates.” Frisk added that Vidal was bothered that he was never invited back to television for commentary, and decades later he wrote in The Nation, that “[Buckley and I] were hired to play the opinion game in order to drive the audience from the issues.”
One reason that Vidal and Buckley were able to get away with so many personal attacks on-air, was that “volatility and hatred expressed in 1968 was following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, metropole riots, and police brutality led the men to imbibe that atmosphere,” Isserman said. “This was the beginning of identity politics in the US, and if there was a simmering down after the election, it was manifested in decreased physical violence but growing ideological polarization,” he continued.
In connecting the 1968 debates with today, Klinkner explained, “You can almost draw a straight line of circus atmosphere in media coverage of politics to those debates, which were clearly about entertainment and not intellectual enlightenment. Not only is this how we now cover politics,” he continued, “but also what politics itself has become.”
Drawing on current events, Klinkner pointed to the combative style adopted by Donald Trump as a hallmark of “entertainment politics.” Isserman added, “Trump more resembles George Wallace, although at least in ‘68, it was the crowds, not the candidates, who advocated or ‘expected’ violence. Once Nixon began bringing troops back from Vietnam, it did a lot to relieve national tensions.” Frisk added that, “Nixon was regarded more center than Wallace, although the film might have been misleading in that regard.”
More broadly, Isserman said that he “found the documentary cloudy in terms of where we were supposed to be led as viewers. Undeniably, before the debates, television was a big bland blob, showing and promoting white, Anglo-Saxon and centrist views. Now, on the other hand, we’ve clearly leaned too far toward entertainment at the expense of the issues.”