The Buckley Myth


Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books Daily (ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images):

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.

More here.