William F. Buckley on the cover of TIME magazine, November 1967.
For a period of time in the late 1980s, I became obsessed with William F Buckley. I had never met such a person in real life, and I was convinced that this was part of my problem: I had no proximity to privilege and didn't understand the privileged mind. His aloof, haughty manner of speaking was utterly strange to me; his bored facial expression was also very odd. Why have a TV show or write books if you are so bored with everything? The upper classes are foreign to me, and he was as close as I was ever going to get. So, I studied him carefully, like an exotic butterfly under a microscope.
Reading his books, I finally learned what it was to be a wealthy, educated and erudite white man with plenty of family connections. I learned that to such a person, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, the Great Society, feminism, liberalism, equality (the very concept of which he openly jeered at) were quite simply RUDE. Who were these ruffians, encroaching on decency? I watched his TV show Firing Line religiously, as he argued with everyone in the world, using words I had never heard anyone actually use in conversation. I can still remember a conversation he had with Lynne Cheney, when she was chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. At one point, she said democracy demanded all people in the republic be educated, and I can still remember Buckley's answering snort of derision. She paused, flummoxed: "I don't know how else we can function in a democracy," she said. He rolled his eyes, in one of his trademark expressions of disgust. The idea of educating everyone? Obviously, you could see that he thought it was a charming notion, like pixies or elves, but it simply wasn't, you know, something that really happened, or should happen.
Despite his ongoing proud, arrogant snootiness, Buckley managed through his influential magazine The National Review, to unite the Old Right (then consisting mostly of croquet-playing, yacht-club types like himself) with the new Goldwater/Reagan, wild-west Republicans, and together, they would kick the nation's ass come 1980 (although it took them 16 years after the crushing defeat of Goldwater in 1964). Tenacious, well-oiled, well-connected and plenty loaded, they stood ready to grab the reigns when Jimmy Carter stumbled, and grab the reigns they did. Buckley saw his right wing become the big tent, bringing together in a coalition the southern evangelicals and paleocons, Jewish neocons, and loudmouthed talk radio riff-raff like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. If he privately had contempt for any of these people (who were remarkably like the 60s ruffians he used to sneer at on TV), he never said so. His only public disassociations were from the ultra-right, looney-tune John Birch Society, and columnists Joseph Sobran and Pat Buchanan, whom he accused of anti-semitism. Racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, war-mongering, all the rest were broadly winked at. He even called Gore Vidal a queer on network TV, during a celebrated feud, one of the few times he publicly lost his temper:
Buckley appeared in a series of televised debates with Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic Party convention. In their penultimate debate on August 22 of that year, the two disagreed over the actions of the Chicago police and the protesters at the ongoing Democratic Convention in Chicago. At one point Vidal called Buckley a “proto- or crypto-Nazi”, to which Buckley replied, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I will sock you in your goddamn face, and you will stay plastered.”And plenty more, of course. His was a life filled with controversy and attention-seeking. He wrote spy-novels and ran for Mayor of New York City. He was a fixture of the times.
This feud continued the following year in the pages of Esquire Magazine, which commissioned an essay from both Buckley and Vidal on the television incident. Buckley's essay "On Experiencing Gore Vidal," was published in the August 1969 issue, and led Vidal to sue for libel. Vidal's September essay in reply, "A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley," was similarly litigated by Buckley. The presiding judge in Buckley's subsequent libel suit against Vidal initially concluded that "[t]he court must conclude that Vidal's comments in these paragraphs meet the minimal standard of fair comment. The inferences made by Vidal from Buckley's [earlier editorial] statements cannot be said to be completely unreasonable." However, Vidal also strongly implied that, in 1944, Buckley and unnamed siblings had vandalized a Protestant church in their Sharon, Connecticut, hometown after the pastor's wife had sold a house to a Jewish family. Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire for libel; Vidal counter-claimed for libel against Buckley, citing Buckley's characterization of Vidal's novel Myra Breckenridge as pornography. Both cases were dropped, but Buckley's legal expenses were reimbursed by Vidal, and Vidal's were not. Buckley also received an editorial apology in the pages of Esquire.
And now he is gone. Michelle Malkin (the type of uppity-gal-of-color he would have sneered at in those Days of Yore) is gloriously praising his holy name, as is Rush and the whole Hee Haw Gang.
We'll be hearing a great deal, no doubt, about what a "gentleman" he was, as of course, rich white privileged men can usually afford to be.
From Buckley's book ON THE FIRING LINE, published in 1989, he reproduces a 1965 column in which he continues an unpleasant row with James Baldwin, after their debate in Cambridge. The two appeared on David Susskind's TV show Open End, and fought some more. Finally, Buckley had enough, and writes a column about Baldwin:
The objective of those who seek equality for the Negro is equality within the American system. If Mr Baldwin and his coterie of America-haters continue to give the impression that such as Roy Wilkins go along with their indictments, then they may very well wind up satisifying the American people that identification with the civil rights movement is an alternative to maintaining the American system. How long, one wonders, before the Baldwins will be ghettoized in the corners of fanaticism where they belong? The moment is overdue for someone who speaks authentically for the Negroes to tell Mr. Baldwin that his morose nihilism is a greater threat by far to prospects for the Negroes in America than anything that George Wallace ever said or did.And he really believed it, too.