William F Buckley and the Politics of Kicks

"Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered…"

Everyone agreed that William F Buckley was good television. When the American Broadcasting Company were looking for a conservative commentator for the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago they knew they wanted Buckley. The only question was who to play him off against. In the end they chose Gore Vidal and in the midst of a heated debate about anti-war protests, Vidal called Buckley a "pro crypto Nazi" and Buckley suggested he stop.

William F Buckley came as a shock to the American left. When he wasn’t being baited by the author of Myra Breckinridge, he could be charming, witty and erudite. Clearly he was intelligent and well-read but — and this was the shocking part — he was a conservative. He despised activists who protested against the war in Vietnam, wanted to make welfare recipients work for their dole, and didn’t seem to like people who weren’t heterosexual.

Michael Harrington described him as "an urbane front man for the most primitive and vicious emotions in the land." "Buckley spoke the inside language of hatred" wrote Dissent‘s Irving Howe. For left wing intellectuals like Howe, the Buckley phenomenon was a mystery that needed to be explained. According to Time Magazine, MIT Professor of Political Science, Lincoln Bloomfield, once remarked that Buckley "is an exceedingly witty, attractive and rather insidious spokesman for a point of view for which I have few sympathies. But if we don’t want to die of sheer boredom, the Buckleys should be encouraged." Howe wanted to know how boredom could justify encouraging Buckley to promote his "reactionary" opinions. And why was Buckley taken seriously?:

Perhaps one reason is that we have no tradition in the U.S. of right-wing intellectuals. Think of the archetypal American reactionary and you summon an image of a stumbling primitive who wants the U.S. to quit the UN, drop the bomb, bust the unions, clean up the reds, abolish the income tax. But that someone wanting a good many of these same things could also write a paragraph of lucid prose and make a clever wisecrack was not really within the bounds of our experience (Dissent Jan-Feb 1966).

Like many of those on the left, Howe could never accept there might be serious intellectual arguments for conservative policies. Joseph Epstein reacted the same way. In a 1972 article for Dissent, Epstein wondered whether:

… there has ever really been strong strain of conservative thought in America.At various time there have been large pools of conservative feeling, but feeling is not the same as thought (Dissent Fall 1972).

Like Howe, Epstein regarded Buckley’s rise to fame as a sign that style had finally triumphed over substance. Like Vidal, Buckley was a product of the media — a celebrity intellectual. Howe argued that Buckley’s rise was a sign of "decadence" — intellectuals no longer cared about political content, what they responded to was personal style.

America’s left wing intelligentsia had badly misunderestimated their opponents. Buckley was the merely the first of growing movement of conservative activists who would combine style, intellect and evidence in an effort to demolish everything liberals had achieved since the New Deal. By the 1980s there would be a vast intellectual infrastructure of magazines, journals, think tanks and student groups. But even then intellectuals would blame the conservative ascendancy on wealthy donors and Ronald Reagan’s personal charm.

In the end, Buckley outlived the controversies that made him famous. His magazine, the National Review, drew together a coalition of traditional conservatives, libertarians and anti-communists. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was no longer anything they could all oppose together. But even if the old conservative movement is disintegrating, the American left still needs to learn the lesson it failed to learn in the 1960s. Much of the left’s appeal in the early 20th century was a matter of style and emotion. The left seemed so much more sophisticated and compassionate than the right. And much of the right’s success at the end of the century was a matter of evidence and argument. By the 1990s, it was no longer plausible to imagine that government planning could replace the market. Buckley and his successors were about more than what Howe derided as the ‘politics of kicks’.

William F Buckley died on Wednesday February 27. He was 82. As always, there’s a lively discussion over at Jason Soon’s place.

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Jc
Jc
13 years ago

Everyone agreed that William F Buckley was good television.

You reckon? It was awful television. I think there were 5 people in the entire US that would watch Firing Line in the end. I was one of them :-) He was a awful waffler but he did have good guests on and you could at least listen to them-1/2 the debate.. It was actually hard making out what he was saying. I used to think PBS kept him on to damage the right.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

PBS kept him on to damage the right? Well maybe … and maybe because the Olin Foundation kept paying for it.

Any show that runs for thirty plus years is going to get tired. But most commentators seem to agree that Firing Line was influential. For example, here’s Laurence Zuckerman in the NYT:

At the beginning, Mr. Buckley, who was a skilled debater from his student days at Yale, set out to eviscerate his opponents. Mr. Judis wrote that Neal Freeman, Mr. Buckley’s personal assistant at the time, modeled the program after the Friday night fights that were then nationally televised.

The guest on the first ”Firing Line” was Norman Thomas, the Socialist and perennial presidential candidate, who by then was 81 and losing his eyesight. ”When you argue with a man who is old and blind, you are pretty tough,” said Warren Steibel, producer and director of ”Firing Line” since its early days. But ”it made good theater,” he added.

And good television. Mr. Buckley drove liberal viewers around the bend by defending Senator Joseph McCarthy, tarring his guests as communists and questioning such liberal orthodoxy as universal voting rights in the South. With his tousled hair, blue eyes that tended to bulge like an exotic lizard’s, portentous vocabulary and halting patrician speech, he quickly established himself as the face of a new kind of conservatism: intelligent, urbane, witty, cutting.

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

Can you understand what he’s saying in those clips, Don? Imagine enduring an hour of that mubbling waffle.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Buckley’s gay baiting in the clip is completely disgraceful and disgusting. Sadly no more than Vidal’s ‘proto nazi’ comment.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Both accusations were accurate. But only Buckley was really hurt, as he should have been.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

And by the late 1960s television producers had figured out that many viewers liked watching people saying disgraceful and disgusting things. ABC deliberately chose to put Vidal and Buckley together because they knew that they’d provoke each other.

Afterwards Vidal seemed pleased with the performance:

on Wednesday, August 28, at nine-thirty o’clock, in full view of ten million people, the little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions of others, to get a good look at. I think those few seconds of madness, to use his word, were well worth a great deal of patient effort on my part.

At the time many left wing intellectuals thought that Buckley got away with expressing offensive opinions because he seemed so charming and articulate. They thought people were taken in by his style. That’s why Vidal thought that he’d won some kind of victory. I think they made a mistake about this. A lot of people listened to Buckley because they agreed with his ideas.

It’s a mistake to think that intelligent, educated people will naturally embrace ‘progressive’ attitudes. Intelligence and education might prevent you from believing that the earth is flat but they won’t automatically prevent you from being prejudiced against out groups.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Oh for god’s sake Don, you’re talking as if Buckley was personally sending gays to the gas chambers. He lost his temper and when you do and you want to hurt the object of your attack you reach for the word which you think is most likely to sting. Vidal did the same. There were plenty of gays and lesbians in the conservative crowd that Buckley would have admired and even employed at National Review (the most obvious being Florence King). what’s this nonsense about prejudice against an ‘out group’.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

What’s this nonsense about prejudice against an ‘out group’?

I’ll let Brink Lindsey explain.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

From Brink Lindsey:

The point here isnt to bash conservatives for benighted views from decades ago that most people on the contemporary right dont hold. The point, rather, is that conservatives today should reflect on the fact that their predecessors did sometimes say embarrassing or even shameful things in the name of defending traditional values. Such reflection should lead to the conclusion that indiscriminate defense of traditional values isnt proper conservatism at all. Its reactionary populism.

Conservatives should therefore recognize that lapsing into reactionary cultural populism is a characteristic vice of the right, and they should be on their guard against it.

Fair point, and indeed I aspire to the contrary order – indiscriminate embrace of libertarian ideals tempered by deep respect for the value of tradition and awareness of human fragility.

But in equal measure progressives should reflect on the fact that their predecessors did often say embarrasing or even shameful things in the name of advocating ‘progress’ and condemning tradition. Such reflection should lead to the conclusion that indiscriminate advocacy of progress doesn’t lead to proper progress at all. It leads to the breakdown of human norms, chaos and ultimately, if unchecked, communism.

Progressives should therefore recognize that lapsing into reactionary condemnation of tradition and traditional structures is a characteristic vice of the left, and they should be on their guard against it.

Jage
Jage
13 years ago

Nicholas

I think it is a just tad precious to insist “Buckleys gay baiting in the clip is completely disgraceful and disgusting.” We ARE talking about 1969 here. Remember, in 1969 homosexuality was a crime in every state of Australia. If you bare familiar with Vidal’s oeuvre, you would know that he dishes out much worse.

I wonder how many of the “progressives” here could have thrown the first stone in 1969? ;)

Jage
Jage
13 years ago

Patrick

Interesting thought ‘the progressives’ predecessors.’ I never quite get what folks are referring to when they describe others/themselves as ‘progressive.’ Please explain.

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

Its a mistake to think that intelligent, educated people will naturally embrace progressive attitudes.

So being tolerent of gays and minorities is now a progressive ideal? Is that monopoly, don? Do we have to call the ACCC for a fair hearing?

THR
THR
13 years ago

In addition to gay-baiting, and being slaughtered by Chomsky in a debate (it’s on You Tube), ‘urbane’ spokesman for conservatism Buckley came up with some other pearlers, such as:

The central question that emergesis whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yesthe White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.
William F. Buckley, National Review, August 24, 1957

He also suggested that the uneducated should be denied the vote:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/27/business/media/27cnd-buckley.html?_r=3&hp=&oref=login&pagewanted=print&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

and he did a stint in the CIA. Nice.

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

THR:

I’m not defending him as I think was a gaseous old windbag, but 1957 is a little gap between 2008 and holding people to present standards ( he did actually racant those views) would also mean we ought lift Senator Robert Byrd’s coffin lid and see what comes of there. Bobby Byrd was a high up member of the KKK and is now the most senior (dem) senator in congress.

THR
THR
13 years ago

Whose praising the dems?

Jc
Jc
13 years ago

Did I say you were?