Well, who in the hell else did you think was going to be named Time‘s Person of the Year?
“A Junky’s Christmas.” Tonight. A Bloomington tradition. If you miss it, you’re a square. At the Blockhouse, 205 S. College Ave, 8:30pm.
The fabulously imaginative and creative usual suspects — Tony Brewer, Joan Hawkins, Chris Rall, Arthur Cullipher, Shayne Laughter, and many others — bring to life William S. Burroughs’ heartbreaking, inspiring (or not), down and dirty spoken word playlet. This year, the gang also presents Ray Bradbury’s noir tale, “It Burns Me Up!”
Go there. I will.
The Loved One and I watched the documentary Best of Enemies last night. It’s the story of the relationship between conservative icon William F. Buckley and liberal author Gore Vidal.
The two became etched permanently into my consciousness back in 1968. I was 12 years old and just becoming the weirdly obsessed political junkie I am now. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s execution in April of that year hooked me. When the news came over that he’d been shot in Memphis, I realized no fiction, no made-up stories or fantasies, could ever rival real life for compelling drama. I instantly had the sense that a world where a nonviolent resister could be hunted down and murdered was 23 times more fascinating than any cowboy movie or outer space allegory. Then, nearly five months later, Buckley and Vidal faced off against each other on national television.
I was riveted.
Buckley (L) & Vidal, As Always, On Stage
The backgrounder: The Republican and Democratic national conventions were anticipated to be bang-up programming for the three major television networks. The country was coming apart at the seams — far more terrifyingly even than it appears to be now. King and Bobby Kennedy had been blown away. America’s black neighborhoods had gone up in flames for the fourth year in a row. Anti-war protesters were turning college campuses into battle zones. This holy land’s dinner tables were becoming verbal boxing rings. LBJ’d dropped out of the presidential race. Richard Nixon, a political joke only a few years previous, was hurtling toward the GOP nomination, challenged by an upstart has-been movie actor who was galvanizing a reborn Right Wing. There was a sense that at any moment, something big — something earth-shattering — was about to happen. ABC News decided to hire Buckley and Vidal to sit together nightly on a set and pontificate on…, well, America during the conventions.
The two were aristocratic intellectuals. Vidal never attended college, yet his writings were influenced by the ancient Romans, Petronius and Juvenal, the English satirist and philosopher Thomas Love Peacock, Proust, Henry James, and Evelyn Waugh. Buckley attended Yale, where he became a member of the exclusive Skull and Bones Society, and went on to found the National Review. The mag became the conservatives’ bible.
Jim Holt wrote in New York magazine in 2015: “Vidal and Buckley were both patrician in manner, glamorous in aura, irregularly handsome, self-besottedly narcissistic, ornate in vocabulary, casually erudite, irrepressibly witty, highly telegenic, and by all accounts great fun to be around.”
Both orated like Shakespearean actors in content and style. Both were effete noblemen whom one couldn’t imagine ever having dirt under their fingernails. When they lobbed barbs at each other, they made references to Egyptian mythology, Socratic inquiry, epistemology, metaphysics, Cartesian materialism, and other such foggy precepts. They didn’t call each other “jerk” or “asshole” — they danced rhetorically, artistically, as they jabbed their spears, producing wounds far more lethal than any prosaic blunt blows.
Once, Buckley was asked if there were anyone in America with whom he could not share a stage. He responded immediately: Gore Vidal.
Yet the two of them couldn’t resist the opportunity to spar on national television. And throughout the Republican convention and the opening couple of days of the Democratic, they remained fussily civilized. That is, until the Wednesday of the latter confab, when Chicago police rioted, clubbing, beating, throttling, smashing, attacking protesters and passersby, gassing demonstrators and delegates, drawing blood from hippies, lefties, and reporters alike.
Clearly aghast at the violence in the streets and on the convention floor, Vidal spoke forcefully and angrily. Buckley, too, was enraged, especially against demonstrators who expressed support for the Viet Cong, one of America’s nominal enemies in Southeast Asia. A reference was made to Americans sympathizing with Nazis during World War II.
Buckley: “Some people were pro-Nazi and they were well-treated by those who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care because you have no sense of identification with….”
Vidal: “The only sort of pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself….”
Moderator Howard K. Smith: “Now, let’s not call names….”
Buckley [eyes glaring, lifting himself out of his seat, leaning threateningly toward Vidal]: “Now listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face — and you’ll stay plastered!”
I saw this as it occurred on live television. I was transfixed. It was the most thrilling, frightening thing I’d ever seen on the screen.
Prior to this, no one had ever called another a queer on national television. No one really had ever made oblique reference to someone’s sexuality, directly to his face, on national television. Nobody had ever taken the lord’s name in vain on national television. And no one had ever threatened to strike another in the face on national television.
The fact that the two involved were of the elite, paragons of rectitude, made the exchange all the more startling. America was indeed coming apart at the seams.
Yes, startling. That’s what I thought for many years. Until lately. Now, after having seen countless brawls on cheap daytime talk shows like Jerry Springer’s or even Oprah Winfrey’s, after hearing husbands, wives, lovers, politicians, pro athletes, standup comedians, college professors, racists, misogynists, haters of every stripe, the rich, the poor, the girls next door, Boy Scouts, lawyers, the accused, judges, and priests call each other and everyone else the most insulting, actionable, untrue, inappropriate, uncalled-for, cringe-inducing names, after seeing news anchors and elective office holders blow their brains out on live TV, after seeing the incoming president of the United States mock a handicapped guy and brag about grabbing women’s pussies, Buckley and Vidal’s “startling” encounter seems rather quaint.
No, we aren’t coming apart at the seams. We’ve been torn to shreds.
Big Talk Thursday
Tune in this afternoon at 5:45 for this weeks’ edition of Big Talk on WFHB‘s Daily Local News. My guest will be restoration architect Cindy Brubaker. Stand by for links to the feature as well as the pretty-much-unedited track of the original interview with her, to be posted tomorrow AM.
Next week, actor Francesca Sobrer, one of the stars of the Bloomington Playwrights Project production of “Home,” a play by Christy Hall with music and lyrics by Scott Alan.
And, hey, the week after brings us Jack Dopp, the man who gets the New York Times, the Indy Star, and/or USA Today to your front door and your local convenience store. He’ll talk about how the newspaper biz — and Bloomington itself — has changed throughout the years.