Look, I’m aware of Gore Vidal’s excesses: in literature, politics, and appetite. And yet, there’s something positively delicious about the moment when, after Buckley calls him a queer, a sly smile creases Vidal’s face. “I got him,” he’s so obviously thinking to himself, “I’ve got this pompous little bigot right where I want him.”
As for context, remember, as Eric notes below, that the country was literally falling apart in 1968: the aftermath of Tet brought the realization that Vietnam would end in a stalemate (at best), the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy shattered many people’s hopes for a better world, and, of course, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (where Mayor Daley screamed at Senator Ribicoff, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home.”) suggested that even the establishment had lost its capacity to lead.
Finally, I don’t think this exchange represents the high-water mark for WASP culture in the United States. That was probably some time during FDR’s eleventh term, right? Instead, this appears, in retrospect, like the beginning of the end of the WASP era. Various civil rights movements were still unfolding. A Catholic had been elected president. Another might have been had he, too, not been killed. And as Mayor Daley realized, Abraham Ribicoff, a Jew son of a bitch, had upstaged the party’s leaders in Chicago. Still, Buckley’s and Vidal’s accents: so very plummy!