Daredevil

Riding motorbikes without a helmet, flying planes while half asleep—not to mention discussing books he’d never read and using words he didn’t understand—William F. Buckley courted adventure in all that he did. Here, the conservative godfather’s onetime protégé and longtime nemesis fondly recalls their friendship—and argues that Buckley was not the snob many thought him to be.
Social Snob?

Bill could hardly have been a social snob when he was playing matchmaker for his sister and me. I was a penniless nobody. For that matter, Brent Bozell had no significant money or social standing when (with Bill’s encouragement) he married Trish Buckley. Brent had got to Yale on a double scholarship, from the GI Bill and from an American Legion oratory award. Where his family was concerned, Bill always cared more about a person’s being Catholic and conservative than about his or her being rich. I passed the Catholic test, and came close enough on the conservative point in 1957, for him to hint that Maureen and I might be made for each other.

Despite his religious and ideological preferences, Bill was basically egalitarian.

Though he always used proper titles for guests on his TV show, he was “Bill” to everyone from the moment they met him. He treated all ranks at the magazine with equal courtesy and respect. There was never any “side” to him. In this he was unlike his wife. He always dressed like a rumpled undergraduate, while she had Bill Blass and other designers dancing attendance on her. Bill and Pat were deeply in love—each called the other “Ducky,” just as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn call each other “Pinky” in the movie Adam’s Rib. But the Tracy and Hepburn characters have their differences, and so did the Buckleys. They had different (though overlapping) social circles. Bill was amused by some of her friends (like Truman Capote). But she treated some of his intellectual friends—like the literary critic Hugh Kenner—as a nuisance. Pat never finished college, and intellectual talk could make her uneasy. Once, when we were doing a night sail from Stamford, Connecticut (she never went on longer sails), I brought up the writer Donald Barthelme and she said she had no time for such pretentious stuff.

In one of his published journals, Bill described in loving detail the limousine he’d had specially redesigned as a kind of traveling office. He was widely mocked for this. But he had realized the advantage of having a chauffeur only when he ran for mayor of New York, in 1965, and needed a car and driver to get him to events where there was no time or place for parking a car himself. He saw that he could do his endless dictating of letters and columns on the move, and he kept the Irish Catholic driver who had seen him through the campaign. Before that race, he’d regularly ridden around New York on his motorbike. And he was driving his own (modest) car when I met him in 1957. After I arrived at his office in New York to talk about writing for National Review, he asked where I had left my suitcase. I said, “At the airport”; I thought I might be heading right back to Michigan at the end of that day. He told me to wait while he finished his editing for the day, then he drove me to LaGuardia. After I picked up my bag, he drove us out to his home in Stamford, where we talked, swam, and ate dinner. Then he drove me back into New York, put me up in his father’s apartment at 80 Park Avenue, and turned around to drive back to Stamford. He was my chauffeur that day. It was the kind of thoughtfulness many people experienced from him.

Ideological Snob?

There was a better case for thinking Bill had ideological class prejudices. But when he established National Review, in 1955, he applied no ideological test to all those he hired or tried to hire. He wanted good writing and intellectual stimulation. That is why he printed non-right-wingers like John Leonard, Joan Didion, Renata Adler, and Arlene Croce. Later, he sailed or skied with John Kenneth Galbraith and Walter Cronkite (I sailed with both), not because they were celebrities but because he liked them and admired their minds.

The real measure of Bill was the extent to which he overcame the prejudices he began with because of his family. His mother was a southern belle from New Orleans whose grandfather had been a Confederate soldier at Shiloh. She kept the attitude toward blacks of her upbringing. One time, when we were sailing and stopped at Charleston, South Carolina, Bill took me to his father’s winter home. When we arrived, we were greeted by a black retainer who had known Bill from his childhood—he called him “Master Billy.” It was not surprising that Bill and I would initially disagree about the civil-rights movement. In a notorious 1957 editorial called “Why the South Must Prevail,” he defended segregation because whites were “the advanced race,” and “the claims of civilization supersede[d] those of universal suffrage.” We argued over this, and his biographer, John Judis, says that my views gradually had some effect:

Under the influence of conservative proponents of civil rights like Wills and the heated debate about civil rights taking place in the country, Buckley began to distinguish National Review’s and the conservative position from that of southern racists.

Another burden from Bill’s early days was his father’s anti-Semitism, a harder thing for him to conquer since he honored his father so profoundly. A close friend of Bill’s at the Yale Daily News was Tom Guinzburg, later the president of Viking Press. Guinzburg and Bill’s sister Jane were on the verge of being engaged, and Bill’s father said that Bill, using his friendship with Guinzburg, should prevent a Jew from joining the family. Bill intervened, to his later regret. For once, he was a match breaker rather than a matchmaker. I was with him the night he finally confessed to Jane what he had done behind her back. She said it did not matter—the marriage would not have worked out. Bill said, “I wish I had known that before—I have been reproaching myself all these years.” Bill did more than break National Review away from right-wing journals that harbored anti-Semites. When he found that a book reviewer (Revilo Oliver) and one of his editors (M. Joseph Sobran) were writing anti-Semitic stuff in other venues, he dismissed them from the magazine. Bill became so sensitive to the problem that he wrote a book on the anti-Semitic writings of right-wingers like Sobran and Patrick Buchanan.

By the time of his death, even Bill’s earlier critics admitted that he had done much to make conservatism respectable by purging it of racist and fanatical traits earlier embedded in it. He distanced his followers from the southern prejudices of George Wallace, the anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the fanaticism of the John Birch Society, the glorification of selfishness by Ayn Rand (famously excoriated in National Review by Whittaker Chambers), the paranoia and conspiratorialism of the neocons. In each of these cases, some right-wingers tried to cut off donations to National Review, but Bill stood his ground. In doing so, he elevated the discourse of American politics, making civil debate possible between responsible liberals and conservatives.

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