The occasion: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.’s stint as commentators for ABC during the network’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The fun begins, in the blurry, black-and-white video clip widely appended to online obituaries of Vidal, when Buckley interrupts the Juvenal of the Small Screen as he is pointing out, reasonably enough, that the protestors in the Chicago streets “happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam,” the Vietnamese being perfectly capable of self-determination — a view widely held in the civilized world, according to Vidal.
“If it is a novelty in Chicago,” he intones, in that Mid-Atlantic accent redolent of Phillips Exeter Academy and idle hours with Jack Kennedy, “that is too bad, but I assume that the point of the American democracy is you can express any point of view you want.” Buckley demurs: “Some people were pro-Nazi and the answer is that they were well-treated by people who ostracized them, and I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care because you don’t have any sense of identification” (the deathless phrase Support Our Troops not yet having been invented). Vidal is quick with his reply: “As far as I’m concerned the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself,” a zinger that rouses the former captain of the Yale debate team to new heights of Ciceronian eloquence. “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered,” snaps Buckley, his jaws working convulsively. “Let the author of Myra Breckinridge go back to his pornography and stop making allusions of Nazism to somebody who was in the infantry in the last war.” “You were not in the infantry,” Vidal adds, helpfully, an assertion confirmed by Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus, who reports that Wild Bill “served in the U.S. Army but did not make it overseas. He did, however, oversee a sexual hygiene operation on a base in Texas.” Presumably, no pornography was harmed in the making of that operation.
The Vidal-Buckley dust-up, dissected ever after by the two combatants and their partisans, is wonderfully instructive. Buckley is at his best, by which I mean his worst — mesmerizing for all the wrong reasons, as he is in his 1969 Firing Line debate with Noam Chomsky on American involvement in Vietnam. In that episode, Buckley is a one-man freakshow of WASP eccentricities, Ivy-League affectations and subliminal seductions, obscenely flicking that reptilian tongue, languorously attenuating the last word in a sentence, flashing a sly wink at Chomsky in mid-debate, flaring his eyes suggestively at the mention of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. (Who knew that a double entendre lurked in the title of that classic book on the admittedly steamy subject of generative grammar?) To the self-assurance of the manor-born and the entitlement of the prep-schooled, Buckley adds an invigorating jigger of weirdness, a snaggletoothed leer that hints at a redeeming depravity behind all that high-church, God and Man at Yale conservatism.
Suddenly, as in the near-knockdown with Vidal, we glimpse a less charming depravity. Prehensile tongue in cheek, Buckley commends Chomsky for his “self-control” in debating the Vietnam question, to which Chomsky jokingly replies, “sometimes I lose my temper; maybe not tonight.” Says Buckley, “Maybe not tonight, because if you would I’d smash you in the goddamn face.” A flash of that awful dentition assures us it’s all in good fun, a wry allusion to the Vidal Affair. But the manic glitter in the eyes, and the thuggishness of the only half-mocking threat, say otherwise.
Ironically, the conservative intellectual tradition whose flag Buckley carried has been put to rout in recent years by a goon-squad populism ignorant of history, immune to evidence, head-buttingly hostile to intellectualism and, unsurprisingly, incapable of reasoned debate — a style of mind (I use the phrase advisedly) whose idea of argument is a smash in the goddamn face. Today’s Republican party is a parliament of monsters, overrun by flat-earth fundamentalists, Birthers, Truthers, climate-change deniers and the not-so-light brigades of the Tea Party, heavy haunches astraddle motorized scooters (brought to you by Medicare). By comparison, a clubbable gent like Buckley, punctilious in his grammar, tony in his accent, by all accounts a model of gentlemanly civility in his private life, looks like Edmund Burke’s intellectual stunt double.
But then we remember, inconveniently, the Buckley who in 1957 was an apologist for segregation on the presumption that “the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race”; the Buckley who in 1986 suggested that “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals”; the Buckley who, upon reflection, regretted having called Vidal a queer but, come to think of it, deplored the shamelessness of a pervert who “proclaims the normalcy of his affliction” rather than “[bear] his sorrow quietly,” as well as his forcible tattooing, one presumes.
Vidal, the Mencken of Our Times, had no illusions about Buckley, just as he had no illusions, more generally, about that Carnival of Buncombe that is American political life. Noting Buckley’s passing, Vidal happily disregarded the prohibition on speaking ill of the dead:
[B]ack in 1968, ABC TV had asked me and Buckley to “debate” each other at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Although Buckley was often drunk and out of control, he was always a spontaneous liar on any subject that his dizzy brain might extrude. … Years of ass-kissing famous people in the press and elsewhere had given him, he felt, a sort of license to libelously slander those hated liberals who, from time to time, smoked him out as I did in Chicago, when I defended the young people in Grant Park by denying that they were Nazis and that the only “pro- or crypto-Nazi” I could think of was himself.
When The New York Times (which he cordially despised) came calling, Vidal was ruminative. How had he felt on receiving the news of Buckley’s death? “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”
In Vidal’s final years, his Last-Roman-Senator-Quoting-Suetonious-Amid-the-Ruins routine began to pall, and the small, mirthless smile he managed, from his puckish remove, at the decline of Our Fair Republic (for him, it had been declining from the day it was founded) made mock of any dreams of social justice we might entertain. Yet, as a stylist and a wit — the ironist laureate of American empire, and its Devil’s Accountant, totting up its war crimes and cultural grotesqueries with unconcealed relish — he had no equal. Refreshingly un-American in his apparent conviction that People Who Need People are the Scariest People in the World — “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water” — he was and will long remain the untouchable touchstone of polemical style, the man who owned the word “mordant.” He wasn’t lovable, but we’ll always love him for services rendered to Our Fair Republic, not least of them needling Buckley, on national TV, until his patrician mask cracked, revealing a snarling brownshirt who would’ve been right at home in a beer-hall brawl.