In 1968, the ABC television network hired the liberal as political analysts of the presidential-nomination conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. Their strong commentaries led to Buckley threatening Vidal with physical violence. After days of bickering, their debates degraded to the vitriolic, to ad hominem attacks. In discussing the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, the public intellectuals argued about the freedom-of-speech-right of American political protesters to display a Viet Cong flag, when Vidal told Buckley to “shut up a minute”, after Buckley had interrupted him, and, in response to Buckley’s reference to “pro-Nazi” protesters, said: “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro-crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” The offended Buckley replied, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Their quarrel was interrupted by the ABC News anchorman-moderator Howard K. Smith, and they controlled their mutual hostility, and returned to providing the political analysis and commentary for which they had been hired. Later, William F. Buckley said he regretted having called Gore Vidal “a queer,” yet said that Vidal was an “evangelist for bisexuality”.
In 1969, in Esquire magazine, Buckley continued his cultural feud with Vidal in the essay “On Experiencing Gore Vidal” (August 1969), in which he portrayed Vidal as an apologist for homosexuality; Buckley said, “The man who, in his essays, proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [i.e., homosexuality], and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.” The essay is collected in The Governor Listeth: A Book of Inspired Political Revelations (1970), an anthology of Buckley’s writings of that time.
In turn, also in Esquire magazine, Vidal responded to Buckley with the essay “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr.” (September 1969), and said that Buckley was “anti-black”, “anti-semitic”, and a “warmonger”. The offended Buckley sued Vidal for libel; at trial, the judge said, that the “court must conclude that Vidal’s comments, in these paragraphs, meet the minimal standard of fair comment. The inferences made by Vidal, from Buckley’s [earlier editorial] statements, cannot be said to be completely unreasonable.”
Moreover, their feud continued, and, in Esquire magazine, Vidal implied that, in 1944, William F. Buckley, Jr., and unnamed siblings had vandalized a Protestant church in Sharon, Connecticut (the Buckley family hometown) after the wife of a pastor had sold a house to a Jewish family. The offended Buckley again sued Vidal and Esquire for libel; and Vidal filed a counter-claim for libel against Buckley, citing Buckley’s characterization of Myra Breckinridge (1968) as a pornographic novel.
The court dismissed Vidal’s counter-claim. Buckley accepted a money settlement of $115,000 to pay the fee of his attorney, and an editorial apology from Esquire magazine, in which the publisher and the editors said that they were “utterly convinced” of the untruthfulness of Vidal’s assertions. Yet, in a letter to Newsweek magazine, the publisher of Esquire said that “the settlement of Buckley’s suit against us” was not “a ‘disavowal’ of Vidal’s article. On the contrary, it clearly states that we published that article because we believed that Vidal had a right to assert his opinions, even though we did not share them.”
In Gore Vidal: A Biography (1999), Fred Kaplan said that “The court had ‘not’ sustained Buckley’s case against Esquire … [that] the court had ‘not’ ruled that Vidal’s article was ‘defamatory’. It had ruled that the case would have to go to trial in order to determine, as a matter of fact, whether or not it was defamatory. The cash value of the settlement with Esquire represented ‘only’ Buckley’s legal expenses… .”
In 2003, William F. Buckley, Jr. resumed his complaint of having been libelled by Gore Vidal, with the publication of the anthology Esquire’s Big Book of Great Writing (2003), which included Vidal’s essay, “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr.” (1969). Again, the offended Buckley filed lawsuit for libel, and Esquire magazine again settled Buckley’s claim with $55,000–65,000 for the fees of his attorney, and $10,000 for personal damages suffered by Buckley.
In the obituary “RIP WFB – in Hell” (20 March 2008), Vidal remembered his nemesis William F. Buckley, Jr., who had died on 27 February 2008. Later, in the interview “Literary Lion: Questions for Gore Vidal” (15 June 2008), the New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon asked Vidal, “How did you feel, when you heard that Buckley died this year?” Vidal responded:
I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins, forever, those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.
The Buckley-Vidal debates, their aftermath and cultural significance, were the focus of a 2015 documentary film called Best of Enemies.
John Barbour Productions, written, directed and produced by John Barbour.