William F. Buckley, Jr. and the Left Revisited

Some years ago, not long after William F. Buckley, Jr. passed away, I took on writing a book-length project for this site called Crossing Swords: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Left.

The project, designed as a tribute to Buckley, consisted of a series of essays that documented Buckley’s running debates with America’s best known leftists. Those chapters focused on Dwight MacDonald, Gore Vidal, John Kenneth Galbraith, Noam Chomsky (aka Howard Zinn), Michael Harrington, James Baldwin and, of course, Norman Mailer. A concluding chapter touched on Buckley’s exchanges with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Murray Kempton, Malcolm Muggeridge, Germaine Greer and others with whom Buckley sparred or discussed critical issues.

The series generated interesting feedback from unexpected quarters, including a kind note from Professor James Galbraith, son of JKG, and Maurice Isserman, biographer of Harrington, and other left thinkers/causes. Alas, despite my hopes, no publisher right or left offered to anthologize the series of essays into a book (it would have required some rework to be certain) and it has since mostly disappeared into the digital wasteland.

Sadly. Because I am fairly certain, knowing Buckley through correspondence and one memorable dinner at his home, that he would have greatly liked to have seen such a project come to fruition, if only to document the important issues that helped sustain the amazing intellectual high-wire act he managed over several decades. These debates and exchanges, publicly and privately, revolved around large personalities and  issues. The discourse, at times, rose to the level of high theater even as it occasionally devolved into a street fight.

There was a fair amount of bruising going during the height of these debates: political realignments, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the emergence of television as a shaping force in culture and politics, the Cold War, the sexual revolution, Reagan’s ascendancy, etc.

It is no surprise to me, then, that others also have found this material rich and well worth mining. Buckley and the legion of folks he debated, after all, largely shaped the politics, culture and journalism of the second half of the 20th century. This has been documented in Carl Bogus’ book, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism; a film documentary on Buckley’s heated exchanges with Gore Vidal (Best of Enemies); and most recently Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties by Kevin Schultz.

What we find is that competent but less than friendly historians are stepping in to put their own spin on Buckley and the great exchanges he and his left counterparts inspired. It would not surprise me to see other books around these debates emerge, but alas none seem to be incubating on the conservative side other than my own effort already mentioned.

Having read Bogus and Schultz I would suggest they are fairly predictable in praising Buckley on style, but not on substance: he was anti-civil rights, and hence guilty of racism (a conclusion only possible by crudely misrepresenting his perspective); he was pro-Vietnam war, and therefore shares blame for that disastrous entanglement; he was pro-traditional values, and therefore out of touch with the times; he was pro-free enterprise, and therefore against the poor. On it goes.

I don’t mean to suggest there is not value in these projects. Bogus ably describes how Buckley fused three wings of the right together in order to launch modern conservatism: libertarians, traditionalists and anti-communists. He is less compelling on Vietnam and civil rights. Schultz takes seriously the political, journalistic and cultural contributions of Buckley and Mailer, and clearly enjoys spending time exploring their exchanges  even as he distorts or gets a few things wrong. He leaves out all nuance on Buckley’s view of civil rights and the Cold War and at one point calls John Kenneth Galbraith a classmate of Buckley’s when he surely meant Van Galbraith, Buckley’s long-time best friend and former Yale classmate. He pays scant attention to the nuance of Buckley’s thought on economics and is clearly unmoved by Buckley’s deep commitment to human rights in the face of communist tyranny.

The film on Buckley and Vidal, which apparently documents the famous (or infamous) television exchanges between the two men during the 1968 national political conventions, was undertaken several years ago and only recently began to air. I was slightly involved because I got to know one of the people working as a consultant on the project and we met a few times. He even borrowed my Buckley books in order to capture some of the titles for film. It was clear to me then that the film would lean in Vidal’s direction politically speaking, but in fairness I have not been able to view it due to its infrequent and distant airings.

In any case, all of this is a tribute to Buckley, I suppose. As I suggested in my own essays years back, Buckley was a giant, a thinker and polemicist whose enterprise touched seemingly every major political/literary personality of his time. That liberal historians continue to recognize his unique role  and importance speaks to his gift for engaging others in important discussions he has helped to animate for half a century.

Oddly, it is the right that seems increasingly and strangely disinterested in celebrating the depth and breadth of what Buckley accomplished in bringing their issues and concerns into the mainstream. I have observed little energy even in countering some of the harsher attacks on him. The reasons in some cases may be personal (based on some of the memoirs penned by those closest to WFB) or strategic (why waste energy trying to persuade those immune to persuasion). It does have consequences, however, as others with no love for conservatism or its concerns frame and define this important era in our history. That, to me, is regrettable and precisely what Bill spent much of his life trying to avoid.

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