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The year was 1968 and ABC was the perennial underdog among the three broadcast TV networks. Things were so bad they couldn’t even afford to cover the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination conventions gavel-to-gavel, which was standard at the time.

So, instead, they came up with a stunt to draw viewers to their nightly hour-and-a-half of coverage. Each evening would end with a debate between the conservative magazine editor William F. Buckley and the liberal novelist and playwright Gore Vidal.

Those debates, those debating and the immeasurably horrific impact of ABC’s stunt are the subject of the extremely well-measured documentary “Best of Enemies.” The Tea Party, talk radio, the endless political shouting matches of modern television, the schism of networks into right and left wing, heck, the schism of the country itself are all, if not the direct result of those immensely popular broadcasts, then at least reflections of the split American personality there on display.

Understand, both of these men were supremely witty, self-confident and sure of their stance. Also, they obviously loathed one another, which made for a catty chemistry rarely seen at the time.

And remember the time period — Bobby Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had both recently been assassinated and race riots and protests against the Vietnam War raged across the country.

Buckley yearned for a return to old-fashioned morals and structure; Vidal basically argued all that was already blowing in the wind. Neither man actually seemed to listen to what the other was saying, or else didn’t care. They cut at one another like expert knife-fighters. Sound familiar?

Did anyone win? Most say Vidal, since Buckley descended to physical threats. But really, has anyone won in any of this endless bickering?

tlong@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

‘Best of Enemies’

GRADE: B+

Rated R for some sexual content/nudity and language

Running time: 87 minutes

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