In 1966, Bill Buckley went back to Yale to defend our war in Vietnam against the university chaplain, Bill Coffin. There were fights at the door of the Law School to get in. The president of the Political Union lingered, in his introduction, over comparison of the two men—Coffin ‘49, Buckley ‘50; both Skull and Bones, and members of the Elizabethan Club; both veterans when they entered Yale—Buckley as a second lieutenant after two years, Coffin a captain after four (the students cheered). Both had contentious later lives, and in unexpected ways—it was Coffin who served in the CIA.
The young man did not know, yet, that Buckley also joined the CIA. That well-guarded secret was one of many little things exposed around the edges of the Watergate affair. Buckley had gone in at the top—or bottom. He was recruited as a “deep cover” agent—the meaning of that is spelled out in Buckley’s semi-autobiographical novel, Saving the Queen. His sister Priscilla also worked for the CIA; but when she looked through every office file she could, searching for her brother’s name, she did not find it. He was the secretest kind of spook. He can speak with some authority—and, indirectly, does—in his novel.
Buckley was recruited right out of college. He intended to enroll in Yale’s graduate school, to study under the fierce but stylish anticommunist ogre, Willmoore Kendall. But Kendall was going back into government intelligence, and he persuaded Buckley that the Korean conflict would shortly become World War III, so the two of them might as well make a place for themselves, ahead of time, in the civilized branch of the service. It was, in 1950, like being tapped for Bones. Gentlemen songsters off on a spree. Kendall introduced Buckley to CIA man James Burnham (whose books the hero in Buckley’s novel must read as an assignment from the Agency). Later, when these three men launched the journal National Review, Burnham called his regular column for the magazine “The Third World War.” When Buckley calls for a war, he does not let it decline the invitation.
Kendall, brilliant, melodramatic, self-destructive, was an improbable secret-keeper. (He is the loosely fictionalized subject of Saul Bellow’s tale, “Mosby’s Memoirs.”) But it was the genius of the CIA to create a discipline for free spirits. This was its heritage from the Office of Strategic Services, that permanent floating faculty meeting where the boys were also the masters. It is fitting that Buckley’s quite skillful spy tale draws a long implicit comparison between the Agency and a British public school. In both, the rebellious are admired, within bounds—Steerforth, were he alive in America during the 1950s, would infallibly have drifted toward the CIA. Buckley’s protagonist, who becomes a boyish hero to his peers by cool insult to “the system” at his school, remains a hero amid spooks by defying Congress at the novel’s end, refusing …