William F. Buckley, Jr., important in conservative circles during the Nixon and Reagan eras, was not central to the time of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush (he called their Iraq war a failure). But there is some renewed interest in him now, in particular in his serial sparring with intellectuals and institutions on the left: a new documentary, Best of Enemies, recalls Buckley’s televised clashes with Gore Vidal at the 1968 political conventions; while a book by Kevin M. Schultz, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties, presents its subjects as friend-foes with an outsize impact on their time.
Put these together with the fact that a major biography of Buckley is being written by Sam Tanenhaus, the former editor of The New York Times Book Review—and that another biography has been backed by the Buckley Program at Yale, itself a recent addition to the Buckley legacy—and it is a lot of attention being paid to a man who died seven years ago. The interest may, in fact, be fueled by overstatement.
I am sorry to see Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s Best of Enemies being hailed for remembering a golden age when intellectuals fought out profound issues in public. There is more intellectual insight and incisive commentary on a single night of Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report or Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show than in all of the mean broadcasts of Buckley and Vidal. One of the broadcasts, which the documentary makes much light of, took place while police and protesters were battling in the streets of Chicago—and things were not going so well inside the TV studio either, since at one point Buckley said to Vidal, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddam face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Buckley certainly hated Vidal, but not, I think, for being gay. He hated him for ridiculing his supreme values—Catholicism and the Market. Why did that “queer” blurt from Buckley? Sexual innuendo had been introduced from the first of their broadcasts, when Vidal said he had modeled his transsexual fictional heroine, Myra Breckinridge, on Buckley. Buckley regretted agreeing to appear with Vidal, and tried to get out of his contract with ABC before moving from the Miami convention to Chicago, but the network held him to it. His frustration mounted as he was constrained to continue where he did not want to be. Before Buckley launched his threat to punch Vidal, he rose partly from his chair, which has been interpreted as a lunge toward Vidal, the better to punch him. Buckley’s son, however, says he was trying to rise and stalk out, but his back brace (worn because of a sailing accident) hindered him. (Buckley later had the good sense to be ashamed of his outburst and to avoid all mention of it.)
That Buckley was a homophobe would have come as a surprise to his many openly gay friends, some of whom I met with him, on his boat and elsewhere. Buckley’s son wrote that most of his mother’s friends were gay males, with whom Bill mingled without prejudice. Buckley’s wife said he should leave bad enough alone and not continue fighting with Vidal after the ABC broadcasts. But Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, invited the two to continue brawling in his pages, and they unwisely accepted. The articles they published were bad enough, but before Esquire’s lawyers tamed things down, they were unprecedentedly vile.
A more ambitious project is Kevin M. Schultz’s Buckley and Mailer. He argues that the 1950s was a placid time narcotized by Eisenhower. But two radical voices, Buckley from the right and Mailer from the left, called out across the dreary middle ground, shaking things up—deep calling to deep, in Schultz’s telling. When chaos broke out in the 1960s, the two men pulled back from the violence they had created.
But had they created it? The upsetting of the old order was accomplished mainly by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-war movement. Those three things, and the vehement opposition to them, did the real churning of the waters; and Buckley and Mailer were only briefly and peripherally involved in them. The real troublemakers were people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, opposed by the likes of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Feminists like Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett were opposed to the pious legions of Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye. On Vietnam, Benjamin Spock and Tom Hayden faced down Nixon’s hardhats and Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. These deeply committed people with real followings had little time for the filigreed warblings of Buckley or Mailer. Deep to deep? Rather, flamboyant shallow to flamboyant shallow. Buckley and Mailer did not make history. They made good copy.
Yet Yale too, with the founding of its William F. Buckley, Jr., Program in 2010, has come to share an overstated view of its onetime antagonist. Buckley first became known for attacking Yale just after he graduated from the school. In God and Man at Yale (1951), he argued that a university should get its authority from being in loco parentis, and since his parent, the oil millionaire William F. Buckley, Sr., had raised him to believe in Christianity and the free market, Yale should have reinforced those religious and economic beliefs. Since it did not do so, his father and other parents should stop donating to Yale.
The argument was deeply silly, but it caused an enormous backlash. McGeorge Bundy, a Yale graduate about to become a Harvard professor, mounted a full attack on the book in The Atlantic in November 1951. The head of the department where I first taught was an Old Blue who seethed with anger at the mention of Buckley’s name. The practical effect of the book, as Buckley’s sister laughingly recalled to me, was to boost contributions to Yale. Years after he wrote the book, Buckley was asked if he had contributed money to Yale. At first he answered no—but then added, “I lecture there for free, so that could be considered a contribution.” There is a kind of piquancy in the presence of a Buckley Program at the school he tried, in his youth, to starve into submission. But, of course, he later sent his only son to Yale.
Actually, there was one friendship of a leftist with Buckley that, though it did not change history, did alter Buckley’s thinking. Schultz says that Mailer, more interested in personal exploration, listened to Buckley, but Buckley did not listen to him. Yet there was a friend on the left whom Buckley deeply respected and listened to. Murray Kempton had not only a mordant moral clarity but an inclusive sense of charity. This was a case of deep calling to semi-deep, and the semi-deep responded.