Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Lost Art of Gentlemanly Debate


Harken Back to the Days When Debate was a Gentlemanly Sport

By Skip Sheffield

Remember when it was possible to have a civilized, gentlemanly difference of opinion?
If you do, “Best of Enemies” will have you feeling nostalgic. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Buckley was on the far right. Vidal was proudly left-wing. Both men were from New York, attended posh private schools and affected plummy British accents. In the summer of 1968 they became a national cause celebre when they debated on-camera about the merits and demerits of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. ABC-TV was in dead last in ratings. Thanks to the debates, ABC vaulted to first place.
Of special interest to locals is the fact the Republican Convention was held in Miami Beach. It’s fun watching a young Sam Donaldson reporting from the beach in a rather tongue-in-cheek style. Other era talking heads are Shana Alexander, Dick Cavett, Howard K. Smith, Kirk Kirkpatrick and of course Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, who emerged victor as the Republican presidential candidate.

I was off at college during the 1968 convention, but I was living in Delray Beach and attending FAU as a graduate student in 1972. One of my favorite cousins, John Huyler, showed up at our big old Delray house. He told me he was going to the Republican Convention, again held in Miami Beach, and he was determined to protest the reelection of Richard Nixon. I admired John’s fortitude, and I lent him my motorcycle so he could get around. Sure enough, John Huyler was arrested in a massive over-reaction by Miami Beach Police. John was jailed and my motorcycle was impounded. Eventually someone paid John’s bail, and my motorcycle was returned to him. I was proud to play a part, however small, in the legitimate protest against Nixon, who would finally resign in disgrace in 1974 after the Watergate Scandal broke. The system works, I thought at the time. Now I feel we live in much unkinder, not-nearly gentler times. Perhaps “Best of Enemies” can provide insights to how we got here from there.

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