Like any cultural phenomenon, Jon Stewart has both a history and a prehistory. I’ll have more to say about the longtime “Daily Show” host and his mixed legacy as liberal avatar and Barack Obama doppelgänger before his final signoff, but our topic today involves a trip in the pop-culture way-back machine. Stewart’s prehistory goes back at least as far as 1968, when I certainly hope his parents were not letting him stay up to watch the late-night talk shows.
That was a history-shaping year for American politics and culture in so many ways I can’t possibly list them. It was the year that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, the year of the “police riot” at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the year Richard Nixon was elected president by peeling white Southerners away from the Democratic Party for the first time since the Civil War. (Nixon’s margin over Hubert Humphrey in the popular vote was tiny – 500,000 votes out of 73 million – but Humphrey only carried 13 states, and the Electoral College was a wipeout.) Each of those events changed the world on its own, and taken together they made America in 1968 feel like a nation poised above the abyss.
It was also the year when ABC News, last in the ratings and viewed as by far the least reputable of the three big network news organizations, took an odd gamble. They hired William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, a pair of highbrow intellectuals who were barely known outside the Northeast Corridor intelligentsia, to hold a series of on-air debates during the political convention season. As you can see clearly in Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s irresistible new documentary “Best of Enemies,” this was a history-shaping decision too. By the even-tempered standards of 1960s television, when the leading news anchors were laconic, avuncular figures like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, Vidal vs. Buckley was pretty much a clown show. It was also total TV gold. Those two guys went viral when that adjective only referred to actual disease; they invented the YouTube clip decades before the Internet was even a gleam in Al Gore’s eye.
I wouldn’t say that Jon Stewart is the direct heir to Gore Vidal any more than Bill O’Reilly should be considered the undiluted spawn of Bill Buckley, but the conceptual lineage is clear enough. Buckley and Vidal never agreed on anything, often adopting deliberately extreme positions to antagonize each other. I honor and revere Vidal as one of the most important insider critics of American imperialism and exceptionalism, but in those years his thinking on the revolutionary student left and the nature of Soviet-style Communism was undisciplined and overly binary (as he would later admit).
As for Buckley, I would almost never have agreed with him in any prescriptive sense, but the mordant complexity of his fatalistic, post-Augustinian approach to politics was not well served by the Vidal debates, where he just comes off as a racist, sexist and homophobic troll who wants to bring back the monarchy. In the most famous proto-YouTube moment of the Vidal-Buckley debates, the former flippantly describes the latter as “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of,” and Buckley flips out: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Even at the time, calling somebody a “queer” on live TV was perceived as unacceptable hate speech (Vidal was about as close to being out as a public figure could be in 1968, although he never officially identified as gay), and to his intense humiliation Buckley was forced to recant and apologize.
In a New Yorker item this week, Hendrik Hertzberg makes a point that I suspect has made every viewer of that legendary segment uncomfortable (indeed, ahem -- I made it more than a year ago): Vidal’s drive-by insult was unfair and gratuitous, and only meant to provoke the thin-skinned Buckley into responding in kind. You could call Buckley lots of things; as Hertzberg scans it, he was a reactionary, a racist, a homophobe and a supporter of autocratic right-wing regimes all over the world. But those things are not the same as belonging to a deranged genocidal cult, and calling an American conservative a Nazi barely two decades after the end of World War II (in which Vidal and Buckley had both served) was deliberately inflammatory. In terms of TV history, though, Vidal was the winner of that exchange and Buckley the loser, which established an important precedent for all such media altercations: TV victory has nothing to do with making cogent arguments or actually being right; it's all about keeping your cool.
I can’t help feeling that Vidal and Buckley would finally be united, in the afterlife, by their shared horror and shame at the shallowness and artificiality of the political and cultural combat zone they pioneered. Put your ear to the ground, and you can just hear this almost-forgotten blue-blood duo murmuring imprecations at each other and the world from their graves, still reaching for the right quotation from Pliny the Elder. I’m not necessarily agreeing with them, or saying that things would be so much better if we still had overeducated Upper East Side buffoons yelling at each other on TV. We still have more than enough of those people, but now they have to pretend to be something they’re not.
Just to be clear, my comparison between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly is structural or technical in nature. Go ahead and argue that one of them speaks unvarnished truth to power and the other is a dastardly lying hypocrite. That's all fine, but it’s also missing the point. Both should primarily be understood as entertainers, showbiz professionals whose manufactured Everyman personas serve to buttress or reinforce entrenched ideologies. How genuine are the opinions they express so passionately, the controversies they gin up and the media feuds they create? It’s a naïve question, am I right? It's an inappropriate question, a question that misapprehends the knowingness and deliberate artifice of contemporary media. Its only possible answer is an awkward one: Somewhat genuine, some of the time.
Contemporary media figures like Stewart and O’Reilly may deliver more or less skillful and effective performances, but they are decadent third-generation imitators, simulating or even spoofing a lost original that was as pure as it was ridiculous. Buckley and Vidal were both impossible patrician snobs who could not possibly claim to speak for the “common man,” having hardly ever met any who weren't handing out towels at the country club. They knew what ordinary Americans needed, far more clearly than ordinary Americans did! But there was nothing insincere in their hatred for each other, or their shared conviction that the other one represented a toxic and dangerous ideology that would destroy everything worthwhile about America if it were allowed to flourish. If anything, their common class background only made the mutual loathing more intense.
No doubt Vidal and Buckley’s ruling-class demeanor of overweening arrogance and condescension would be deemed unacceptable on TV today, in our era of bogus authenticity. (Every time I have to hear MSNBC host Chris Matthews call himself an “Amurkan,” in his studied imitation of a South Philly white ethnic accent, I hate humanity just a little bit more.) We talk a lot about white male privilege these days, but today's entitled Caucasian dudes simply can't compete. Buckley and Vidal carried their privilege to empyrean heights, and sneered down from the battlements at the other white men who weren’t up to the task. They were the Olympian gods of mansplaining, the platonic ideal of pomposity.
Looking back on the whole improbable spectacle as we encounter it in “Best of Enemies,” the fact that Vidal and Buckley were fundamentally sincere was a crucial element of their appeal. If the bizarre vibe of boarding-school throwdown between them – the erudite references and pithy rhetorical barbs, delivered in that upper-class, trans-Atlantic drawl you can only find today among elderly ladies on Park Avenue – bordered on self-parody from the get-go, there was nothing false about it. If we go back to cultural critic Lionel Trilling’s famous dialectic between sincerity and authenticity (in a series of Harvard lectures delivered two years after Buckley and Vidal’s TV revolution, and then an influential book), both of those guys fulfilled both poles of that spectrum, in a way that is no longer possible in the meta-performance zone of contemporary media.
To clarify those ambiguous terms a little bit, Trilling meant sincerity to signify being truthful in your public utterances – a political virtue perceived at least as far back as Pericles – while authenticity is the more modern concept of remaining true to some genuine and unchanging inner self, as in Polonius’ famous advice to Hamlet: “To thine own self be true … Thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Trilling raises the intriguing possibility that Shakespeare means Polonius to come off as a tiresome ass, dispensing useless platitudes.) Trilling essentially believed that in the 1960s the untrustworthy ideal of authenticity had undermined the more modest and reasonable model of sincerity, but from this distance things look a bit more complicated.
Leading political and media figures are required to perform both roles, but in ways we always recognize as performances, imbued with too much self-awareness. Chris Matthews’ “Amurka,” coming from a lifetime Beltway insider, is the performance of authenticity, as was the entire political career of George W. Bush, a man born into a political dynasty and educated at Phillips Andover and Yale who played the role of unsophisticated Texas rancher. Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone,” and his occasional willingness to deviate from Republican talking points, is the performance of sincerity, as is the political career of Barack Obama, an orator with a remarkable gift for framing noxious policy decisions progressives should oppose as necessary or unavoidable.
Without anticipating a longer discussion of Jon Stewart too much, he obviously represents the performance of sincerity, the truth-teller who is calling out right-wing hypocrisy and channeling righteous liberal indignation. In recent days, Fox News commentators have correctly noted the personal and ideological kinship between Obama and Stewart, which was never all that much of a secret, but as usual they have drawn stupid and wrong conclusions. Stewart has maintained a canny critical distance from the Obama White House, and cannot reasonably be depicted as its ideological puppet. His performance of sincerity, you could say, is much more sophisticated than O’Reilly’s, perhaps because the culturally embattled Fox News audience requires only token reassurance that it actually thinks for itself. Stewart is more like the John Milton to Obama’s God, the grand contextualizer and apologist who clarifies the incomprehensible workings of Providence.
To get back to 1968, while Bill Buckley and Gore Vidal were unmistakably performers, honed by the debating societies of expensive prep schools, I see no insincerity and no inauthenticity in either of them. They obeyed Polonius by remaining true to an overeducated and overprivileged self, reared amid the nosebleed caste, and they unmistakably said what they meant and meant what they said. If one of those two was fronting a bit, interestingly enough, it was Buckley, who did not actually come from the old-money Anglo-American elite. His fancy education in Paris and London (he did not speak English until he was seven years old) with all its sailing lessons and horseback lessons and harpsichord lessons, for the love of Christ, was paid for by his father, a self-made oil millionaire from a tiny town on the Brazos River in Texas. (That’s right: Buckley was much closer to being the George W. Bush persona than Bush was himself.)
Vidal was a genuine aristocrat, the son of a dashing Army pilot and a New York socialite and the grandson of Sen. Thomas Gore, a progressive Oklahoma Democrat who staunchly opposed overseas intervention. (Vidal and Al Gore were distant cousins.) Even his parents’ extramarital affairs were high-class: His dad was Amelia Earhart’s longtime lover; his mom was Clark Gable’s. He attended two of the most exclusive private schools in the country, St. Albans in Washington and Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, whereas Buckley went to Millbrook, a small, progressive and mildly eccentric prep school in New York's Hudson Valley. (Its second most famous alumnus, amusingly enough, is filmmaker Whit Stillman, the cinematic bard of Manhattan WASP experience.)
Those micro-distinctions in heritage and class background look almost meaningless from this distance, but I’d be willing to bet they played a role in what followed. Buckley launched a movement to defend wealth and power, which his followers and disciples have used to build a new American autocracy. Vidal became a lonely voice of outside dissent, proclaiming that the entire edifice was corrupt but leaving no clear legacy behind him. Their revolution was televised: Which side won is far from clear.
“Best of Enemies” is now playing in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada. It opens this week in Chicago, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Washington; Aug. 14 in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Memphis, Minneapolis, Palm Springs, Calif., Philadelphia, Phoenix, Santa Cruz, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., and Seattle; and Aug. 21 in Amherst, Mass., Ashland, Ore., Bellingham, Wash., Hartford, Conn., Indianapolis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Providence, R.I., St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Sarasota, Fla., Vineyard Haven, Mass., Winston-Salem, N.C., Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities and home video to follow.