Gore Vidal and the Death of Refined Public Repartee

By Frank Schaeffer 8-02-2012
Gore Vidal in 2004.

Back in the 1970s, when I still was living near William F. Buckley in Switzerland close to my parent’s ministry, L’Abri Fellowship, from time to time the author would visit my mother and father for tea.

My late father (the theologian Francis Schaeffer) and Buckley had little in common apart from a shared love of art, the Swiss Alps, and a sense that the West was in a decline that only Christianity could reverse — even if they would not have agreed on what that word “Christianity” meant. WFB was a bon vivant Roman Catholic and Dad was a “biblical inerrancy” fundamentalist.

Dad would serve tea, but I could tell that, as the afternoons wore on, Buckley might have preferred an offer of something a bit “stiffer,” as the Brits call a real drink. Later, in the early '80s, Buckley and I  were comparing notes about speaking (I’d just addressed the Southern Baptist convention before I fled the evangelical scene), and he mentioned that he agreed with Winston Churchill who said, "You can't make a speech on ice water."

Dad was a teetotaling Presbyterian. Notwithstanding, Buckley — perhaps to annoy my father — once said, rather pointedly, that he always demanded a couple of glasses of wine before taking to the podium.

When I learned of Gore Vidal’s passing Wednesday, I recalled Buckley talking to Dad and me about how Vidal and he used to go hammer-and-tongs arguing on TV — mostly on Buckley’s program Firing Line — only to go have a drink together after the show.

I often recall that conversation in the context of today's Right/Left cultural-political divide, and I can't picture any Fox News Channel host having a cocktail with any MSNBC host after they've disagreed repeatedly and pointedly in public (on separate shows of course).

These days little clubs of like-minded thinkers pretty much exclusively seek out their own.

Buckley knew that a large measure of his reputation rested in his ability at least to match the arguments of some of his and Vidal's "enemies." When it came to Vidal, he and Buckley were strangely matched mirror images of each other — privileged, educated, odd, arrogant and yet somehow deeply decent. They arrived at their conclusions from opposite sides of the presuppositions they held dear, but both agreed that America was/is in decline.

My father was of the Buckley/Vidal school of debate, too. I remember how he was so pleased after he debated Bishop James Pike (about liberal-versus-conservative theology — what else?) at Chicago's Roosevelt University. After their public exchange, Pike wrote to Dad to say that he’d never felt attacked and indeed felt that, through the debate, he’d made a new friend. This was one of my father’s (deservedly) proudest moments. 

Vidal had a well-earned reputation for using biting bon mots to thwart his opponents. It was a technique that he applied even to himself: “I'm exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water." It would be easy to imagine him as some sort of harbinger of today’s cable TV 24-hour “news” incivility.

But according to Buckley, Vidal would fight hard and cleverly, but then, privately, have that stiff drink with his public adversary and let all the acrimony wash away.

The same scenario did not apply, however, when it came to the critics of Vidal’s writing. In answering critics of his art, Vidal offered no friendly cocktails. Instead he served only the kind of caustic back-and-forth that once drove Norman Mailer to punch him in the mouth at a dinner party and made most of his critics wish they’d never heard of him by the time he was finished excoriating them.

And yet, for Vidal, intellectual debate and disagreements were a different matter. The business of ideas was just that. Buckley, Vidal and, in his own way, my father, did not indulge in the sort of mindless put-downs based less on ideas and more on purely commercialized rancor that is the life blood of cable news and most “blogging” today.


Buckley and Vidal were erudite enough that there was true substance to their “bitter” (and fun) exchanges. The ideas arrived before the witty, cutting remarks that were added like icing on the cake.

Today’s pundits try to imitate such refined repartee, but rarely is there any there there and no "cake" to ice.

Take away the writers and the cue cards and where would today’s clever set be on any cable news show, let alone on Comedy Central or HBO?

Buckley seemed genuinely to be fond of Vidal and proud to have argued with him, because, while he was an intellectual adversary, he also was a friend.

When Vidal and Buckley intellectually jousted on television, I always learned something beyond the obvious fact that they were clever men.

Today, when our "pundits" spout off in front of the cameras, all I learn is that they hate each other, or, rather, they pretend to hate each other, since dudgeon-for-profit is what sells TV advertising minutes and the “hate” — like the “ideas" — is solely about packaging.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book is Sex, Mom and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics — and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.

Image: Gore Vidal at the 2004 premiere of the film Alexander. Photo by Featureflash/Shutterstock.

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