The Famed 1969 Gore Vidal Esquire Article: “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr.”
Can there be any justification in calling a man a pro crypto Nazi before ten million people on television?
Originally published in Esquire, September 1969
In a letter that appears in The National Review on December 31, 2004, and on their website at:
The editors, acolytes of William F. Buckley Jr., crow over the court victory that enabled Buckley to quash the reprinting of an article Esquire originally published in 1969. Esquire editors who were not aware of the libel action Buckley brought against Esquire at the time included Vidal’s essay a collection entitled Esquire’s Big Book of Great Writing, published in 2003. The book was recalled in order to enforce Buckley’s original libel action and prevent publication, even thirty-five years later, of Vidal’s version of the debates that the two authors conducted during the Republican and Democratic Presidential Nominating Conventions of 1968. Esquire was also required to make available, on line and off, copies of Buckley’s original attack on Vidal, published in their August 1969 edition. This article was Vidal’s response to Buckley in the following issue.
Esquire magazine, September 1969, p. 140
During the evening of May 13, 1944, Christ Episcopal Church at Sharon, Connecticut was vandalized. According to The Lakeville Journal: “The damage was discovered by worshipers who entered the church for early communion the following day. The vandalism took on the appearance of similar occurrences in New York, according to witnesses. Honey mixed with feathers was smeared on seats, obscene pictures were placed in prayer books, among other desecrations.” According to the local police lieutenant “the crime [was] one of the most abominable ones ever committed in the area.”
Twenty-four years later, 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.
Last month, in a lengthy apologia, Buckley reprinted this exchange which, he proudly tells us, “rocked television.” For purpose of reference, I must briefly reprise what happened. In the night of August 28, the Chicago Police riot was at its peak. Predictably, Buckley took the side of the police. This was particularly hard to do since, just before we went on the air, ABC had shown a series of exchanges between police and demonstrators which made it quite clear that the boys in azure blue were on a great lark. beating up everyone in sight. Buckley attacked me for defending the victims. That did it. I was now ready for the coup de grace. I began: “The only pro crypto Nazi I can think of is yourself . . .” (1) As Buckley knew, there was more to come, He created a diversion: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a pro crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered . . .” It was a splendid moment. Eyes rolling, mouth twitching, long weak arms waving, he skittered from slander to glorious absurdity. “I was,” he honked, “in the Infantry in the last war.” Starting as always with the last improvisation first, I said, “Your were not in the Infantry, as a matter of fact you didn’t fight in the war.” I was ready to go into that but by then he was entirely out of control and as our program faded away on much noise, a few yards from us Hubert Humphrey was being nominated for President. All in all, I was pleased with what had happened: I had enticed the cuckoo to sing its song, and the melody lingers on.
For eleven nights we had “debated” one another on television, first at the Republican Convention in Miami Beach and then at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The American Broadcasting Company had asked us to discuss politics, and so I had spent a number of weeks doing research on the major candidates as well as on my sparring partner. From past experience, I knew that as a debater Buckley would have done no research, that what facts he had at his command would be jumbled by the strangest syntax since General Eisenhower faded from the scene, that he would lie (“McCarthy never won a majority in any state he ever ran in . . .”) with an exuberance which was almost but not quite contagious; and that within three minutes of our first debate, if the going got tough for him on political grounds, he would mention my “pornographic” novel Myra Breckinridge and imply its author was a “degenerate.” This is of course what happened. This is what always happens when Buckley performs. As columnist or debater, he has made sniggering sexual innuendos about a range of public figures, and there is some evidence that what may have begun as a schoolboy debater’s trick to save a losing argument has now become morbid obsession
Study the technique. Discussing the “left opposition” to President Johnson on the Vietnam war, Buckley writes (June 17, 1966, Los Angeles Times): “At the eye of the hurricane, taking advantage of the centrifugal quiet of his station, is Bobby, whose way is swept clean by the ravaging winds of his associates. He must of course occasionally lisp into the act. . . .” Now the late Senator’s voice was known to us all and he did not lisp. Why say that he did? Because the word “lisp” suggests softness, weakness, and, above all, effeminacy. The mad cuckoo behind the little door could not resist casting a shadow upon the virility of his enemy, just as the cuckoo astonishingly characterized those who demonstrated against the war in New York, October 1965, as “epicene” and “mincing” slobs, thus slyly assigning to sodom’s banner such unlikely recruits as I. F. Stone, Ossie Davis, and Father Philip Berrigan. Charity forbids me mentioning what he has written or said of many others; it is all, however, in the record, as his great idol Joe McCarthy used to say.
In any event, having indicated that he lost the debates to me by “losing his cool,” Buckley now hopes to regain by writing what he lost through performing. From where I sit, it looks as if our old friend Hugh Bris is back in town. Apparently Buckley has spent
the better part of a year brooding over his disaster. “I tormented myself,” he declares in a tone which , for sheer plangency, has not sounded since Whittaker Chambers sang among the pumpkins. And so, to relieve his torment, at extraordinary length, he has given us the passion of William Buckley “on experiencing Gore Vidal,” a document which deserves at least appendix-status in any study of paranoia American Style. It is obvious that Buckley spent a great deal of effort on this work and, though it is about as accurate as those newspaper columns he writes in twenty minutes, it is still a most revealing work – though not, as I hope to demonstrate, in quite the way he thinks.
Buckley begins his tirade with, I should have thought, a most dangerous quotation from The East Village Other to the effect that Buckley has been found guilty of exercising “faggot dialectic.” The implication is plain. The writer thinks that Buckley is a faggot. He is not alone. Norman Mailer even shouted the word “fag” at Buckley during a Les Crane taping: It was cut from the show . . . how innocent television was before Chicago last summer! Now Buckley’s private life should be a matter of no concern to The East Village Other or even to that vivacious compendium The Homosexual Handbook whose listing of well-known degenerates includes, on page 261, “William F. Buckley: Writer, professional candidate. Mr. Buckley hosts a television program and conducts it with a flourish and a zest, with such brilliant gestures and hand movement, that Gore Vidal is reported to have called him ‘the Marie Antoinette of American politics.’” Now to include Buckley in a list of homosexuals is doubtless slanderous. In any case, every public figure is vulnerable to this sort of rumor, which is why it seems to me odd that someone like Buckley, himself suspect, should be so quick to smear others as “queers.” It is a most unbecoming trait in him, and more than a little mad.
Buckley’s reaction to being called a “faggot logician” in The East Village Other was very peculiar. Quoting with obvious excitement from a series of personal ads in the paper soliciting homosexual partners, he asks, “why is faggotry okay, but the imputation of it discreditable?” This is sophistical, to say the least. When Buckley imputes faggotry to others, he means no compliment; nor were the liberal editors of the paper paying him a compliment by calling him a “faggot logician.” Though Buckley is hardly a logician, he is – at his level – a kind of syllogist, and this is what I think, he is trying to say: If liberals think faggotry okay and I call one of them a faggot, why is that wrong in their eyes since there is nothing wrong in being one? Yet when they call me one, they imply there is something very wrong about being a faggot.
I believe I can straighten this out for him. People often use terms which are blunt but not necessarily unkind. Agnew’s “fat Jap,” let us say, or Aristophanes needling Socrates for being a pederast which Buckley reminded us of in his garble of classical history (“I really loved your novel Julian,” Bill whispered softly to me in Miami as we waited to on the air) when Aristophanes was himself an apologist for pederasty (read Plato’s Symposium for the inside story and don’t forget you saw it here first!). People have a tendency to be ambiguous about sex and sexual words. Succumbing to his constant vice of name-dropping, Buckley described how at Chicago Paul Newman ticked him off for having shouted “you queer” at me. Buckley described the conversation accurately except for Newman’s last statement, “You,” said Newman with that preciseness that made him such a formidable campaigner in the 1968 primaries, “are a male c-asterisk-asterisk-t.” (“The last fantasy which is of course the first reality.” Myra Breckinridge, p. 245), it just meant that the word in that context was nicely evocative, even traditional, since the word “hysterical” derives from the Greek noun for womb, and by his own admission Buckley was a “madman” that night. In other words, it is possible to designate someone as a faggot in one context while, in another, regard the whole subject with a permissive eye. By Newman’s standard, Buckley behaved like a male womb, my mine he was hysterical, and since the anomaly – the male womb – ought to be excised, I hope that this present exercise will prove to be a successful hysterectomy.
Just as I had predicted, no sooner had I begun to discuss the various political positions of Nixon and Reagan, Buckley launched an attack on Myra Breckinridge, as a pornographic potboiler, even though he now admits in his mea culpa that he had not read the book at the time he attacked it. Would that he were always so candid! But his motive was plain. Myra Breckinridge is about a homosexual who becomes a woman, falls in love with a girl and then becomes, more or less, a man again. To connect me with the book would mean, to certain simple souls, that the author was a homosexual who had become a woman who had then become a man, etc. – because books are true, aren’t they? This is pretty simpleminded reasoning but Buckley himself has a simple mind; it is only his neurosis that is rich and strange. Needless to say, identifying authors with their works is a feckless game. Simply to go by their books, Agatha Christie is a mass murderess, while William Buckley is a practicing Christian. But we are dealing now with tribal emotions. There was nothing that Buckley was not prepared to invoke in order to keep me from establishing him as anti-black, anti-Semitic, and pro-war. After I had pointed out, pleasantly I hope, how much he resembled Myra Breckinridge, particularly in his use of logic, I was able to get the subject back to politics. I confronted him with a series of statements he had made. He then did something I have never seen anyone do on television before or since. He simply denied having written what I had said he had written. It was the obverse of Joe McCarthy’s, “I have a paper here in my hand.” This time I had the paper with each statement neatly checked and dated, and he denied it all. As Goebels used to say, in somewhat similar circumstances, the big lie is always more powerful than the small plausible one. Still upset over those quotations, he now tells us that he carefully checked his records and the dates I had given him and so on were wrong.
He makes a great to-do over my statement that he favored the atom-bombing of North Vietnam, on the ground that my quote was from the National Review, 23 February 1968. Apparently there is no such issue. The quote, as prepared for me by a researcher, and which, incidentally, appeared in Buckley’s On the Right column of 22 February 1968, reads, “The use of limited atomic bombs for purely military operations is many times easier to defend on the morality scale than one slit throat of a civilian for terrorism’s sake.” I thought this most illustrative of the Buckley morality scale. But then, denying he had made the statement, he writes, “Could Vidal have had in mind a column, written about that time, though never published in National Review, advocating the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam? Who knows? Yes, I have advocated (and most ardently continue to do so) their use . . . ” He then appeals to the reader: what is he to do with someone who invents facts on television? There is a solemn lunacy about all this. Incidentally, in the text of his article that I was sent by Esquire, he crossed out the following exchange from our last performance:
Vidal: According to you, it’s [the people] made nothing but errors since 1932 with an eight year interregnum of a man you didn’t much admire. In fact you criticized Richard Nixon for his unctuous love and attention of the great general. Unctuous is a rather good word.
Buckley: I can account for these errors other than by using the neurotic terms that you’re so fetched by . . .
Buckley crossed out this exchange. Reading it, I wondered why. Admittedly, his response makes no sense – just which of the terms I had used was “neurotic”? A few lines later I understood the reason for the cut.
“Vidal suddenly switched the topic, electing to allude to my ‘intimacy’ with Reagan and Nixon.”
Buckley does indeed like to give the impression that he is “the tablet keeper of history:” for the movers and shakers, and his journalism is filled with little anecdotes as to how Reagan introduced him as a speaker one night in California, or “I have had exclusive interviews with Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Nixon in recent weeks.” (National Review, 9 April 1968.) I knew, as shall be later demonstrated, that in the words of The Wall Street Journal, his ” . . . ideological stance seem[s] to have closed off for him, at least for the present, any close public contact with political figures in the major parties.” (31 January 1967.)
“In order to do so, [Vidal] assigned to the word ‘neurosis’ a meaning I have never heard it given, not even by conventional neurotics.”
Aware that I had simply played back the word “neurotic,” Buckley thought it wise to suppress that part of the dialogue which showed him as provocateur. He then gave the following exchange:
Vidal: Since you’re in favor of the invasion of Cuba, in favor of bombing the nuclear potentiality of China, since you’re in favor of nuclear bombing of North Vietnam, I’d be very worried about your kind of odd neurosis [ I meant “neurotic” ] being a friend of anybody who might be a President . . .
Denying everything, Buckley did admit, righteously, that: “I advocated the liberation of Cuba at the same time that Mr. Kennedy ordered the liberation of Cuba.”
Vidal: No, no, Bill, keep to the record. You said we should enforce the Monroe Doctrine and invade Cuba the sooner the better in your little magazine whose name will not pass my lips.
I then gave the date when he favored an invasion – 20 April 1965, four years after Kennedy’s attempt at “liberation.” (“What Republican leader has done anything to dramatize the need for the restoration of Monroe Doctrine and all that if signifies in terms of our axiomatic obligation to our own hemisphere?” [Italics mine] National Review, 20 April 1965.) He continues with my testimony, beginning:
Vidal: You favored bombing Red China’s nuclear production facilities the 17th of September 1965 in Life magazine, and you suggested the atom bombing of North Vietnam in your little magazine which I do not read but I’m told about, the 23rd of February 1968. So you’re very hawkish, and if both Nixon and Reagan are listening to you, I’m very worried for the country.
Buckley abandons the transcript to observe, “I told him he was misquoting me.” Was I? Here is what I quoted from Life magazine September 17, 1965: I have advocated bombing Red China’s nuclear production facilities . . . How do we justify the bombing in terms of world opinion? On the ground that the good guys of this earth have got to keep the bad guys from getting nuclear bombs.”
On television I called Buckley a warmonger because the preemptive strike which he favors against China would lead to a war with China, because the use of nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese would undoubtedly bring the Chinese into that already disastrous operation, and because his call for an invasion of Cuba is plainly a call for war. I quoted him accurately. And his response? I had invented everything. I suspect that the thought of a Republican administration in 1969 made him not want to be reminded of more zealous days. Always ambitious to be accepted by the nation’s establishment, he wanted desperately to appear to be in the placid mainstream of our political life – yet there I was revealing him as an eccentric war-lover of the right. He was not happy. As we left the studio, after the first debate, he whispered to me, “You’ll be sorry.”
During the next twelve debates, I did my best to discuss the issues. I came to each session armed with quotations from Nixon, et al. Buckley came with a set of prejudices, uncompromised by fact. He was at a constant disadvantage and he knew it. The best he could do was simply say that whatever source I quoted was false. He makes particularly heavy weather in his epilogue of my quotation from Nixon : “I am opposed to pensions in any form as it [sic] makes loafing more attractive than working.” According to Buckley, “no politician in the history of the world ever said that, and most probably no non-politician.” The second part of this hyperbole is quite mad: most right-wingers say this sort of thing all the time. As for the first part, Nixon did make the statement, and it can be found in Labor, 18 October 1952.
When the evidence was too clearly against Buckley, he would again revert to sexual innuendo, attacks on Myra, and finally Bobby Kennedy. With unexpected naïveté, Buckley thought I would be embarrassed to have the audience reminded that I had written unkind things about Bobby. The opposite is true. And so, contrary to expectation, I enjoyed Buckley’s reading of Bobby’s letter to him, suggesting that not blood but Gore be sent to the Vietcong. I also noted that at the end of the letter Bobby had scribbled, “And please, when you put it in – please don’t twist it.” He knew Buckley. Needless to say, this part was not read aloud on the air.
Apropos of the second Kennedy murder, Buckley quotes from an interview I gave to the German magazine Stern in which I said that I thought it significant that Sirhan was brought up in Pasadena, a city rich in anti-Jews, anti-blacks, anti-poor. In fact, Orange County, California, is one of the strongholds of the virulent Right Wing. Now obviously Pasadena is not solely responsible for making Sirhan do what he did , but it was certainly a contributing factor. You cannot live unaffected in a community where so many tote guns and talk loudly about how this Commie and that Jew and that nigger ought to be shot. Needless to say, Buckley defends Pasadena. He then quotes various unflattering things I had written about Bobby, asking rhetorically, “Was that the passage that caught the eye of Sirhan?” This is pure Goebbels. But where Buckley is more than usually bird-brained is that I can quote him at equal length in dispraise of Bobby, and I, too, can cry, “Is this the phrase that caught the madman’s eye and drove him to kill?”
Yet there is a demagogic strategy in all this. If one is lying, accuse others of lying. On television this sort of thing is enormously effective in demoralizing the innocent and well-mannered who, acting in good faith, do not lie or make personal insults, Buckley has made many honorable men look dishonest fools by his demagoguery, and by the time they recover from his first assault and are ready to retaliate, the program is over. Fortunately, I had Buckley night after night and was so able to remind him and the audience of those facts he found inconvenient. My favorite exchange occurred when we were discussing Eugene McCarthy. At the end of one debate, in which I had claimed that McCarthy was the popular choice of the party, if not of its leaders, Buckley suddenly exclaimed, “McCarthy never won a clear majority in any state he ever ran in. Name one state. Name one!” Honking and hissing, flapping his arms, he made it impossible for me to answer that McCarthy had won the Wisconsin primary by fifty-seven percent, a clear majority. The next night, however, I brought up the subject again. Buckley began to writhe. He tried to deny the figures. Then tried to deny saying that he had said. Finally: “But Wisconsin was an uncontested primary and I meant a contested primary.” I pointed out that since there were other names on the ballot, that meant a contest and, in any case, that is not what he had said, et cetera. Childish. Typical. Appealing? To whom, I wonder.
As the debates continued their turbulent way, Buckley began to show the strain. His hands shook, eyes grew wild, he sweated constantly. As I doggedly and, probably rather boringly, discussed the positions of the candidates, he would go off on wild tangents of his own. I lived in Europe (I also live in America). I was a pornographer. I was making up my newspaper quotations. Whenever he did this, I would reply in kind. Although careful to avoid discussing his personal life, I set out to establish him not only as a war-lover but as a totalitarian, in the general sense of someone with an authoritarian disposition who wishes to use the state for such ends as placing the “chronic welfare cases” of New York City in “rehabilitation centers” outside the city (a proposal made in the mayoralty campaign of 1965). No matter what I said, he denied it. Yet here are some of the quotations:
“I am convinced that Martin Luther King belongs behind bars along with everyone else who conspires to break the law.”
After King’s death he wrote:
“The martyrdom [King] seemed sometimes almost to be seeking may commend him to history and to God, but not likely to Scarsdale, New York, which has never credited the charge that the white community of America conspires to ensure the wretchedness of brothers of Martin Luther King . . .”
After Adam Clayton Powell was suspended from Congress, the National Review printed a lip-smacking comment wittily subtitled, “The Jig Is Up, Baby.”
“If the entire Negro population in the South were suddenly given the vote and were to use it as a block and pursuant to directives handed down by some more demagogic Negro leaders, chaos would ensue.”
This statement is a paradigm of the Buckley technique, and should be analyzed. If the Negroes are given the vote, and if they all decided to vote as a block, and the leader of the block was Rap Brown, say, then there would be chaos. Conclusion: don’t give them the vote. Yet (a) there is no evidence that they would necessarily vote in any more of a self-serving block than those New York Irish cops who voted for Buckley; (b) it is well known that extremist black leaders like Rap Brown have almost no influence among the Southern blacks; (c) how could there be “chaos” when the only choice offered the blacks in a general election like that of 1968 would be Nixon or Humphrey? Perhaps their block support of Humphrey is Buckley’s idea of chaos. In any case, the thought of the blacks exercising their constitutional right to vote is displeasing to one who regards the blacks not only of America but of Africa with distaste, even going so far as to characterize Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Mobutu as “semi-savages in the Congo.” (The New York Times, 23 August 1961.)
In his epilogue, Buckley had some good fun with my statistics on poverty. I am supposed to have said, sometimes there were forty million poor and at other times twenty million, and so on.
The point to throwing doubt on my statistics (supplied by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare) was to give the impression that poverty is really not much of a problem. But then Buckley’s attitude toward the poor is singularly cruel. “It is estimated that in New York one half of the chronically poor are disorganized poor, who cannot be persuaded even to flush their own toilets.” (National Review, 4 June 1968.) He also affects not to understand my reference to garbage thrown out of the windows of Harlem. I was not able to complete the sentence on television. But here it is. During a television exchange with Buckley, James Baldwin blamed the white owners of the black slums for their condition. Buckley’s’ response: “And I suppose the white landlords go pitty-pat uptown and throw the garbage out the windows.”
I first became aware of the Buckleys as a family when I was running for Congress as a Democrat in upstate New York, close to Sharon, Connecticut, where the Buckleys live. Campaigning in Amenia (a town I carried) I heard a good deal about the family, none of it flattering. Until then, I had been vaguely aware of someone called William F. Buckley Jr. who had written an attack on the faculty of Yale’s “intellectual drive toward agnosticism and collectivism,” a defense of Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism as “a movement around which men of goodwill and stern morality can close ranks,” and who edited an unsuccessful magazine called National Review (according to The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 1967, between 1955 and 1964, the operating deficit was $2,181,000; it is now more). I had dismissed him as a sort of Right Wing Liberace.
Then, on a January night in 1962, on The Jack Paar Show, there was a discussion of the Right Wing. I mentioned Buckley in a half sentence, something to do with his dismissal of Pope John’s encyclical Mater et Magistra as “a venture in triviality.” Buckley was not mentioned again. Then, unfortunately, this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, according to Buckley. “Paar was evidently pressured to invite me to reply.” Needless to say, Paar was not seriously “pressured” by anyone except Buckley who rang him up and asked for “equal time.” Buckley had now managed to get himself on national television. It was a heady moment. The fact that Paar cut him up badly made no difference. Buckley had finally hit the big time as a TV entertainer, and that was all that mattered. It is a source of some pain to me that, unwittingly, I helped Buckley lose his richly deserved anonymity.
We met for the first time on David Susskind’s program of September 23, 1962. For two hours, we debated. I had been reluctant to appear with Buckley on the ground that simply to sit next to him would make me look the same sort of nut of the Left Wing that he was of the Right. But Susskind persuaded me. It is my recollection that the program was dull.
We next met in San Francisco, 1964, during the Goldwater convention. We appeared for an hour on a program moderated by Susskind. Here is Buckley’s version of what happened: ” . . . Vidal announced . . . that I had that very afternoon importuned Barry Goldwater to accept a draft of an acceptance speech I had written for him, and that Goldwater had brusquely turned me down, all of this in the presence of ‘John Jones,’ a Goldwater aide. I told him that I had not laid eyes on Goldwater that afternoon . . .” I never said Buckley went to Goldwater . . . in fact, just the opposite. It was, all in all, a fine comic interlude, beginning earlier the day of the telecast, when Douglas Kiker, then of the New York Herald Tribune, took Norman Mailer and me to see Goldwater’s press secretary “John Jones.” What “Jones” said about Goldwater was to be off the record. I could not resist, however, asking what Buckley’s role would be in the campaign if Goldwater were the nominee. “Jones” sighed, “That guy! The telephone’s been ringing all day, him wanting to talk to the Senator. Then he sent over some stuff for the acceptance speech and I took it into the Senator, and he said, ‘What’s all that crap?’”
I confess to having prepared a trap for Buckley. Once we were on the air, I inquired innocently as to what his role would be in a Goldwater campaign. Buckley looked positively roguish, his eminence becoming more grise by the moment. I egged him on. He grew more and more expansive about his relations with Goldwater. Hinted at closeness. Then, to my shame, I allowed the trap to shut. I repeated – somewhat paraphrased – what “Jones” had told Mailer, Kiker and me. Buckley raved: it was all lies!
The next day “Jones” quite predictably, wrote Buckley a letter denying what he had said and Buckley sent a copy to me with a covering letter to the effect that he never wanted to see me again. I found this sentiment agreeable. In any case, aside from my two witnesses, Mailer and Kiker, events proved me right: Buckley played no part in the campaign of ’64 and the G.O.P. national chairman Dean Burch ascribed this to “a matter of personality.”
After San Francisco, Buckley tells us he decided not to debate me again and declares that “over the intervening years I had never asked him to appear on Firing Line [Buckley’s television program]”: according to Buckley, this “exclusion gravelled him” Here we have two misstatements. First, I was hardly “gravelled” at the though of not appearing on Firing Line. Second, I was one of the first people approached to appear on Firing Line. As Buckley’s luck would have it, the producer of the program rang me while I was giving an interview to Gerald Walker. I turned the producer down flat, hung up, then explained to Walter that one of the regrets of my life was allowing Buckley to use me to get himself attention. Walker recorded all this in his interview, which appeared in Writer’s Yearbook, 1965.
Now before we return to Chicago and the crack-up, I think I should answer certain charges Buckley has made about my work. I am, apparently, such a dedicated proselytizer for homosexuality that I have, in the words of National Review’s daintiest hack, produced in Romulus (a play taken from Dürrenmatt about the last Roman emperor) “. . . the most offensive instance of ‘inside theatre’ . . . effeminate . . . ” In actual fact, there is nothing “effeminate” about the play. No character is homosexual, and the subject is never mentioned. Buckley also quotes New Haven’s mevin for all drama seasons Robert Brustein as objecting to the play as an “effeminate charade.” What can they mean? They mean, simply, that the leading actor, Cyril Ritchard (now a widower, but for years a happily married man) is known as a camp actor – and doesn’t camp mean effeminate mean homosexual? Since no one listens in the theatre (or to television), the actual drama went unnoticed. Fortunately, the text can be found with Dürrenmatt’s original in a Grove Press edition, and the curious will discover that this “effeminate charade” is a thoughtful meditation on power and responsibility, and makes no mention of sex of any kind. The National Review writer also tells us that “[Vidal] once wrote a scenario about Billy the Kid . . . as a misunderstood homosexual.” A) Leslie Stevens wrote the screenplay for The Left Handed Gun, based upon a television play by me; B) in neither version was Billy shown to be a homosexual.
Now for Myra Breckinridge. As literary critic, Buckley is – how to put it? – lightly equipped. But that does not deter him. He will take on any subject with insolent pluck, confident that his readers are bound to be even more ignorant than he. He is probably right. To support his case against Myra, he quotes most selectively, from some of the more troubled American reviews. Now I am not about to explain or defend my work, but since he has quoted at length from such obscure periodicals as The Critic (a house organ for the Knights of Columbus?), I shall quote from two well-known English critics.
First, Michael Ratcliffe in The Times (London): “Most British reviews have taken Mr. Vidal with total seriousness, up to a point, but to conclude, as some have, that Myra Breckinridge is a novel about sex as the source of all ultimate power is greatly to underrate its subtlety. Gore Vidal remains, after all, a proclaimed classicist, a writing professional and a patrician who suffers fools and shamateurs less gladly then ever . . . and it is impossible when reading Myra Breckinridge not to sense his impatience that the headlong flight into apparent sexual libertarianism has produced a nightmare of idiotic thinking and cant and even that, as an anthropological phenomenon, sex has become wildly overrated . . . Mr. Vidal has drawn the line between absurdity and obscenity, between satire and daft thinking with such a delicate exactness that future sociologists will be hard put to distinguish the fantasy from the real thing.”
Second, Brigid Brophy in The Listener: “The high baroque comedy of bad taste is a rare genre. Myra Breckinridge belongs to it and is a masterpiece: the funniest event since Some Like It Hot
(and some can’t recommend more highly than that) . . . The trans-sex fantasy explodes, I suspect, at a level even deeper than the one from which it liberates the homosexual imprisoned in every heterosexual and also, of course, the heterosexual in every homosexual (for what, after all, was a respectable, presumed-exclusive queer like Myron doing taking such an erotically detailed interest in lady film stars?) . . . Because the baroque is so analytically formal, the baroque mode and his baroque subject matter are a perfect metaphor for Mr. Vidal’s satiric purpose.
“He finds intellectual sloppiness destructive. He destroys it by an explosive, centrifugal force far more inherently destructive than its enemy, but which he controls and creatively deploys into an artistic form.”
In England literary critics tend to write about books for the newspapers; in the United States journalists like Buckley do most of the reviewing, with the result that one gets a good deal of intellectual sloppiness and much moralizing at the Billy Graham level. Muddling Myra’s views with my own, Buckley indicates that I prefer homosexuality to heterosexuality. Now I want to make one thing absolutely clear, as Richard Nixon would say: I do not prefer homosexuality to heterosexuality – or, for that matter, heterosexuality to homosexuality. Unhappily, somewhere along the way, those who write for newspapers decided that since I thought homosexuality as natural as heterosexuality, I must then hate heterosexuality and love homosexuality. One of the sad characteristics of popular journalism is that what ought to be true is true. Contrary evidence is not admitted, including the two million words which I had published in the last twenty-five years, nowhere stating that homosexuality ought to be the preferred form of sexuality. It is true that at one point Myra makes a case for homosexuality on the ground that it might help contain the population explosion. That was a joke. Incidentally, though Buckley quotes at length from the scene in which Rusty is raped, he makes no mention of the many pages devoted to Myra’s attempted seduction of Mary-Ann and the long and I think quite beautiful apostrophe to the uterine mystery.
“But tonight she was subtly changed. I don’t know whether it was the snaps at Scandia or the cold bright charm of the powerful Letitia or the knowledge that Rusty would never be hers again but whatever it was, she allowed my hand to rest a long moment on the entrance to the last fantasy which is of course the first reality. Ecstatically, I fingered the lovely shape whose secret I must know or die, whose maze I must thread as best I can or go mad for if I am to prevail I must soon come face to face with the Minotaur of dreams and confound him in his charneled lair, and in our heroic coupling know the last mystery: total power achieved not over man, not over woman but over the heraldic beast, the devouring monster, the maw of creation itself that spews us forth and sucks us back into the black oblivion where stars are made and energy waits to be born in order to begin once more the cycle of destruction and creation at whose apex now I stand, once man, now woman, and soon to be privy to what lies beyond the uterine door, the mystery of creation that I mean to shatter with the fierce thrust of a will that alone separates me from the nothing of eternity; and as I have conquered the male, absorbed and been absorbed by the female, I am at last outside the human scale, and so may render impotent even familiar banal ubiquitous death whose mouth I see smiling at me with moist coral lips between the legs of my beloved girl who is the unwitting instrument of victory, and the beautiful fact of my life’s vision made all too perfect flesh.”
While we are on Buckley’s favorite subject, sex, I will try to unmuddle his distortion of what I have said about bisexuality. We are all bisexual to begin with. That is a fact of our condition. And we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from our own as well as from the opposite sex. Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime . . . despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word “natural,” not normal. Buckley likes the word normal. It conjures up vigorous Minute Men with rifles shooting Commies, while their wives and little ones stay home stitching hoods. But what is the sexual norm? By definition it is what most people do most frequently. Therefore, the norm is neither homosexual nor heterosexual. The most frequent (if not most preferred!) sexual outlet of most people most of the time is masturbation, making onanism the statistical norm from which all else is deviation. Yet I don’t think even Mrs. Portnoy’s son would want to make a case for that particular normality.
As for being an “evangelist of bisexuality,” I am not an evangelist of anything in sexual matters except a decent withdrawal of the state from the bedroom. There will, of course, always be morbid twisted men like Buckley sniggering and giggling and speculating on the sexual lives of others, and nothing’s to be done about them. But the sex laws must be changed. It was Dr. Kinsey who pointed out that if all the laws were enforced, ninety percent of the men in the United States would be in jail. One final point: Buckley quotes an American reviewer who was horrified at my explicit description of a male body (as usual, no mention of the equally explicit description of a female body). To me this reviewer’s objection perfectly reflects the sickness of the society we live in. On the one hand, such critics hold that we are made in the very image of God, a bit of proud, primitive lunacy still obtaining in certain Christian sects, and yet, without any awareness of paradox, they also hold nudity to be obscene, the body disgusting, and certain parts of it horrifying. Yet if we are made in God’s image, the body must be divine. Conversely, if the body is vile, then its maker must be vile. Unfortunately, our primitives are beyond mere logic. They have their tribal prejudices and find both comfort and glory in their confusion.
“The only pro crypto Nazi I know is you,” I said to Buckley on the night of August 28. He tells us that this so maddened him, he went to pieces with righteous anger. Looking and sounding not unlike Hitler, but without the charm, he began to shriek insults in order to head me off, and succeeded, for by then my mission was accomplished: Buckley had revealed himself. There was no need to discuss his anti-Semitic background. He had demonstrated most vividly what I could only have stated. But now that he has seen fit to relive his failure at Chicago, I am now obliged to write what I chose not to say on the air.
William F. Buckley Sr. was a Texan and an oil speculator who made a small fortune and had ten children. Politically, he was a perfect example of what Professor Richard Hofstader has called the “paranoid style” in American political life. A nouveau riche of limited intelligence but powerful prejudices, Buckley Sr. felt that he should have more influence in the country than indeed he had. In this he follows what Professor Hofstader has shown to be a classic pattern. Whenever a member of one of the immigrant groups to the United States moves from poverty to affluence, his first response is a sense of letdown that he is still no closer to the levers of power than he was before. If he is of a paranoid disposition, he will suspect conspiracy; he will blame them. The John Birch Society is a particular haven for this kind of malcontent. It seems likely that Buckley Senior felt insufficiently acknowledged. Despite the legend of his great fortune, he was never listed in Who’s Who in America, Current Biography, Poor’s Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives, or even the Social Register. Like a cut-rate Joe Kennedy, he then decided to compensate through his children. The were taught total conservatism. They were privately tutored. All were sent to England to acquire patrician accents. William Jr.’s did not quite take. The result was a vigorous, highly articulate brood who, in the words of one (John), ” are all good conservatives and, thank heavens, we all married conservatives.” The family is as devoted to one another as the Kennedys and on the important issues, they think alike. When Buckley Junior was attacking the faculty at Yale for “collectivist” tendencies, two sisters opened up separate fronts at Smith and Vassar.
Though Buckley Jr. is usually candid about his love of war and distaste for blacks, he is extremely wary of appearing anti-Semitic. In this he resembles Robert Welch, though not the late irrepressible George Lincoln Rockwell. Very seldom does he betray his actual feelings as he did on Tex McCrary’s radio program 25 September 1964. ” . . . they [the Jews] tend to construct an engaging political myth, centered around the Hitlerian experience, which more or less suggests that Hitler was the embodiment of the ultra-Right, and that the true enemies
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of Hitler, many of them – that the true enemies were, in fact, many of them Communists during the early Thirties. And under the circumstances they, I think, emotionally feel a kind of toleration for Communist excesses in this country . . .” Arnold Forster of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith answered Buckley four days later on the same program. To Buckley’s charge that Jews feel a kind of toleration for Communist excesses in this country, Forster replied: “That of course, Tex, is nothing more than insidious slander . . . And notice how easy he finds it to generalize, Tex, about Jews. Millions of human beings in one group.” The question of course is why does Buckley find it so easy insidiously to slander, in Forster’s phrases, millions of human beings? I know the answer and Buckley, knowing that I knew it at Chicago, terrified that I would discuss it on the air, saw fit to interrupt me with calculated hysterics.
On March 4, 1944, Mr. and Mrs. Sully Berman bought a house on the green at Sharon. The Bermans were Jews. Now in Sharon, there was a gentleman’s agreement to keep out Jews. Needless to say, the arrival of the Bermans was considered by village gentry to be a betrayal of that agreement, and the town’s wrath was directed not so much at the Bermans as at the real-estate agent who had done such an un-Christian thing as to admit Jews to Sharon. The agent was Mrs. Francis James Meadows Cotter. Her husband was the Episcopal minister at Sharon, the Rector of Christ Church. The Cotters were a well-liked family, and their two daughters were contemporaries and friends of the young Buckleys. Buckley Sr., however, was a most unforgiving man. He complained loudly and bitterly about what Mrs. Cotter had done and, like Henry II, vowed revenge. Shortly thereafter, on Saturday, May 13, Christ Episcopal Church was vandalized. Honey and feathers were poured over the velvet cushions of the pews. Prayer books were defaced. Obscene photographs were inserted in the Bible.
There was considerable uproar the next morning when the Reverend Cotter and his flock assembled. Who had done it? The high-spirited Buckleys were immediately suspected. Acting on a tip, detectives went to the Buckley house and there found the magazines from which had been torn the nudes, the oatmeal and syrup containers still set out on the kitchen table. Minimal sleuthing revealed which of the young Buckleys had been in town that night. The detectives then confronted the three vandals and got them to sign confessions. The case came to court June 10, and the three (one was in college and two in prep school) were found guilty by a Justice of the Peace and each fined $100 for damaging the church. Buckley Sr. did his best to take further revenge on the Cotters, even going so far as to request the Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut to remove Cotter from Christ Church, but by then the village sentiment was entirely on the side of the Cotters and Buckley Sr. dropped the matter. But he had made his point as far as his family was concerned and therein lies the key to his son’s character. Buckley Jr. has never accepted any view of the world other than his father’s. He is forever the little boy trying to impress Daddy by hating what Daddy hates. To be fair, Buckley Sr.’s prejudices were not much different from those of let us say, Joe Kennedy or Senator Gore, my grandfather, but Joe Kennedy’s sons and Senator Gore’s grandson changed as they made their way in the world, learned charity or at least good sense, but not Bill – he is still the schoolboy debater echoing what he heard in his father’s house, and for this postponed maturity he must suffer the fate of having been irrelevant to his own time, a mere entertainer with a gift for mischief.
“A man like Titus Oates occurs like a slip of the tongue, disclosing the unconscious forces, the nightside of an age . . . ” So wrote Graham Greene and so one might write of Buckley. In examining Eichmann’s career Hannah Arendt came to the conclusion that evil can be banal. Buckley’s career suggests that evil can be fatuous. But banal or fatuous, the result is the same if to the fool or his friends falls the power of the state. Buckley is not of course a “pro crypto Nazi” in the sense that he is a secret member of the Nazi party (and I respond to Buckley’s charming apology to me with mine to him if anyone thought I was trying to link him to Hitler’s foreign and domestic ventures). But in a larger sense his views are very much those of the founders of the Third Reich who regarded blacks as inferiors, undeclared war as legitimate foreign policy, and the Jews as sympathetic to international communism.
Since I began this operation with a story from The Lakeville Journal, a sense of symmetry impels me to end with another newspaper quotation. During Buckley’s campaign for Mayor of New York, The New York Times took exception to his “slurs on Negroes,” and accused him of pandering to “brutish instincts.” Buckley wanted to know to what brutish instincts he was appealing and The Times made answer, “Those instincts are fear, ignorance, racial superiority, religious antagonism, contempt for the weak and afflicted, and hatred for those different from oneself.”
End of article
(1) There is some confusion about what was actually said on the telecast. The word “Nazi” was first introduced into the discussion by Howard K. Smith who felt that to raise a Vietcong flag in Grant Park was the equivalent to raising a Nazi flag during the Second War. I said it was not the same thing: officially there is no war between us and Hanoi. More to the point, a sizeable minority of the U.S. disapprove of their government’s policy and if flaunting a North Vietnamese flag gives them comfort they have every constitutional right to do so (as it later developed, the “flag” raised was underwear). Buckley once again attacked the dissenters; I defended their right to dissent. Unfortunately, two lines of his preceding my “pro crypto Nazi” remark are not clear on the tape. It is my recollection they had to do with communism and the dissenters’ relation to the Great Conspiracy. Whatever they were, my own outburst was not a declarative sentence but the beginnings of a response to Buckley which was – so notoriously – cut short. Incidentally, I had not intended to use the phrase “pro crypto Nazi.” “Fascist-minded” was more my intended meaning, but the passions of the moment and Smith’s use of the word “Nazi” put me off course.