William F. Buckley Jr., the fun ogre
HE LOPED into the hotel room, a tall, rumpled figure in a conservative suit but with a silver-dollar-sized brass belt buckle in the best of folk singer style. A shock of hair was hanging over his forehead as his thin mouth curved in a smile of greeting.
"Hi, awfully nice to see you," said William F. Buckley Jr., at 43 the enfant terrible of American politics. Editor, columnist and author Buckley was in Germany to stir up interest in the Republican party's candidates, and he took time out to meet with the press in his Frankfurt suite.
Seeing The Stars and Stripes he pounced on it and quickly checked his column.
"Seems to me it's been cut just a little," he said, making foot-long gestures of chagrin. "You know, it's always surprising to see how the column comes out. Once at the Chicago Daily News they made a mistake and took the first part of one sentence and ran it in with the last part of another. It was pure gibberish.
"A couple of days later, a reader wrote in and said, `It's bad enough that you expose us to this man Buckley and his odious opinions, but does he have to write such atrocious English?' "
Buckley laughed-a short, staccato burst-and then got down to talking — brilliant, clever, wry, funny and always to the point. He suffered awkward questions ("What do you think of the Pope's stand on birth control?") and fielded them with patience ("It's too soon to really say until a more solid response comes from the worldwide church").
He was unfailingly courteous and considerate; his charm was immense. By sheer wit he enthralled his audience ("If we gotta have conservatives, I wish there were more like him," said one newsman); by his convoluted but fascinating answers; laced with quotes by everyone from Albert Camus to Walter Reuther to Julian Bond, he won respect.
AS AN ogre, Buckley turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun.
Buckley is the total reverse of the stereotype of the conservative. lie is seldom dour, always bright; he is quick to accept government intervention in society and has no interest in turning back the clock; he quite literally swings, playing the piano and clavichord for pleasure, joyfully skiing in Vermont and sailing on Long Island Sound. He is enthusiastic about life.
And he is happy to talk about anything, anybody, anytime.
Take John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City, whom Buckley opposed in the 1965 election more as a gesture of protest than as a serious candidate. (When asked then what he would do if he were to win the election, Buckley quipped, "I'd demand a recount.")
"I think Lindsay has just about proved after three years that he doesn't have any solutions to the problems of New York. The problems we had when he came sort of redemptively to our rescue are still there and some of them are more aggravated than they were.
"In a sense I don't think it's entirely his fault; it's the fault of an ideology to which he's beholden, and that ideology is one which tends to deal with people as voting blocs rather than as individuals.
"Incidentally, I think he's running very hard for the presidency in 1972. I think this is obvious. There have been stories about the Lindsay committee very much like the Kennedy committee of 1956 so he's thinking in very long terms, which means he's going to be very much more cautious, and incidentally he's also going to show just a" — and here a pause to measure a tiny distance between thumb and forefinger — "hint of pro-Republicanism because he doesn't want to get squeezed out by the antagonism which dealt a mortal blow to Rockefeller resulting from Rockefeller's walking out on Goldwater four years ago. So Lindsay is being proper (pronounced with 2½ syllables) about all this."
TURNING to the presidential race, Buckley admitted to being "quietly enthusiastic about Nixon. I think that the primary insight he has to offer is that the government can't do everything. I think he's going to sort of `re-License' a lot of people to try and face some of these problems.
"He's not the kind of guy who's going to be as engaging as, say, a Kennedy; he's not a swashbuckler. I think a reassessment of him will result in a very genuine enthusiasm for him in terms of somebody you once jilted and come back to that you don't have for somebody you haven't punished severely, as all of us have punished Nixon."
Buckley was confident Nixon would win if the election "was held right now, and I don't think things are going to change very much in the next few weeks."
BUCKLEY ALLOWED that Nixon running mate Spiro T. Agnew "kind of fascinates me. He's the only spontaneous thing in town and he obviously hasn't been schooled in Madison Avenue politics — I like that. You either have to assume that Nixon was mad to choose him or there's something there that doesn't easily meet the eye.
"When he made that remark about Humphrey being soft on communism I rushed to my typewriter and described the choreography of the next three days. He simply didn't know you can't call anyone soft on communism these days — especially if somebody is soft on communism."
IT'S HARDLY surprising that Buckley isn't terribly impressed by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's campaign.
"Humphrey's sounding more and more to me like a nervous breakdown. He's rushing around adopting all kinds of positions, including contradictory positions, and then when he is called on to elaborate on them, the elaborations are so complicated that no one can understand them.
"I think he should have resigned as vice president for his own sake in Chicago — incidentally, I like him personally — that would have given him a launching pad from which to wage a convincing campaign, but he didn't; I think he funked that, and he appears to be so indecisive as to not be master of his own ship.
"I think we should make it a convention in America that if an incumbent vice president is nominated he should resign his position."
TURNING TO the third-party candidate George Wallace, Buckley described him as having a "certain kind of barroom wit, and he uses it to good effect. His campaign is obviously successful: anyone with his resources and beginning as he began, to now be getting 21 per cent of the polls is pretty phenomenal."
Is the emergence of a third party a danger to traditional American political institutions?
"Well, it's certainly a danger to the second party," he said, "as the Whigs found out from the Republicans many years ago. I don't think it is a real danger today as in this century the tendency has been for the parties to assimilate nascent third parties. I think the net effect of Wallace is going to be to move both parties a little to the right.
"I don't think he is a conservative at all; I feel he occupies a position roughly equivalent to Huey Long. Huey Long embarrassed a lot of Democrats because he was saying the kind of things a lot of left Democrats wanted said but saying them uncouthly."
BUCKLEY has been given by Nixon, among others, credit for practically destroying the "respectability" of the John Birch Society and its chief, Robert Welch, for Republicans, at any rate, in a series of articles. in his National Review. Does he agree?
"Well, I think that Mr. Welch helped. Anyone who is so lunatic to call Mr. Eisenhower a Communist — as Russell Kirk said, he's not a Communist, he's a golfer — is sort of self-destructive. But I think it is true that the John Birch Society was reaching for acceptance by the right wing, and National Review's obdurate expose and repudiation of it sort of stopped it from getting a respectable reception."
Buckley has been busily exposing for many years. He first jumped into the national spotlight with a withering attack on his alma mater, "God and Man at Yale." That was 18 years ago, and the academic community rose up against this brash young millionaire's son.
"As a believer in God, a Republican and a Yale graduate," thundered White House adviser McGeorge Bundy at the time, "I find that the book is dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author."
The book was a diatribe against liberal professors, who, Buckley charged, were force-feeding young students leftism and atheistic beliefs. Professors rushed to debate with this brash young man, only to find out that he was a fast man with the repartee.
IN 1955 Buckley founded his conservative forum National Review with $125,000 from his family and another $300,000 from friends. (Obviously, it's nice to have that kind of friends if you want to put out a basically unpopular magazine.)
The annual deficit in the Review's operations is met by donations from readers, from sympathetic businessmen and from Buckley's income as TV performer ("Firing Line," now on 45 stations), columnist and lecturer.
In 1965 Buckley was so infuriated by the thought of John Lindsay as mayor of New York that he entered the race himself. What angered Buckley was Lindsay's "impure" Republicanism, which he felt diluted the conservative philosophy for mere political triumph.
He refused to enter the Republican primaries ("I'd have felt obligated to back Lindsay if I'd lost)" and instead ran on the Conservative party ticket. He added zip to an otherwise less-thanthrilling campaign (can the reader recall Lindsay's Democratic foe?) and recorded a 300,000 vote total-drawing some fascinated liberals to his side.
(Some thoughtful proposals he made during the race: an elevated bicycleriding track down Second Avenue so New Yorkers could keep up muscle tone, and heavy taxes on traffic coming into Manhattan by bridge and tunnel to cut down traffic.)
He looks on Lindsay's tenure as mayor of the city as pure chaos, pointing out that despite a lessening of unemployment in the city, relief costs have more than doubled in the last three years.
HOW WOULD he meet the problem?
"Well, I think you have to have a use tax, a realistic one. It's all very well and good for General Electric to have an imposing headquarters in Manhattan, but then to be able to hire a janitor for $60 a week ... well, that puts the burden of supporting this man and his .children, say, on the city. The company couldn't get the janitor for $60 unless the city was furnishing the services to permit him to survive.
"Needless to say, I don't foresee any adoption of such a use tax."
BUCKLEY has equally outspoken thoughts about various other problems facing American cities. How can the city live with the Black Panther movement, for instance?
"They're completely radical," said Buckley about the Negro Panthers. "They can't be negotiated with as they now are; the only thing to do with a Black Panther in my judgment is to send him to jail. I mean that quite seriously, because these are explicit enemies, not only of the democratic system, but (of) a very personalized kind. It would take a very, very subtle and almost unnoticeable shift in their doctrine to begin actually picking out people to assassinate.
"Martin Luther King was no longer in control of the Negro movement; nobody is. So his death didn't deprive the movement of its leader; King was being widely hooted and derided by some of the more militant Negroes back before his death."
What's ahead for the Negro movement?
"I think there will be an 'internationalization'; I think all that you see now is a syndrome of it ... the end of an emphasis on integration is necessary, an emphasis on black labor unions, black capitalism, a bootstrap operation, all of which, in my judgment, are highly desirable.
"I think the government has several roles to play; one of them certainly is cracking down on labor unions that exclude Negroes. the principal difference between (George) Meany and (George) Wallace is that Wallace's means of enforcing segregation are less effective than George Meany's.
"There are Negro students at the University of Alabama, but there are no Negro plumbers in the city of New York."
IN HIS hometown New York, gadfly Buckley lives a most unconservative life. In addition to editing his magazine, turning out three columns a week for more than 200 newspapers and conducting his television show, he is on hand at most of the city's major social events — whether a party by Truman Capote or a museum art show opening.
A wealthy man in his own right (his father piled up millions in oil ventures) Buckley would automatically have entree to Gotham's most exclusive circles (he was Skull and Bones at Yale, as well as chairman of the Yale Daily News, which spans a world of conflicts). But most conservatives aren't quite sure what to make of a man who says, "Today, as never before, the state is the necessary instrument of our proximate deliverance."
Brilliant on the theoretical level, Buckley falls on his face when it comes to the nitty-gritty of politics. As Barry Goldwater (a long-time friend and admirer) put it, "As a political. kingmaker you're a wrong-way Corrigan."
Some observers cast Buckley as a mirror reflection of the late John F. Kennedy-from patriarchly Irish parentage to Roman Catholicism to background of vast wealth. Such a comparison is utterly distasteful to the boss of the National Review.
Time magazine — a reluctant fan of Buckley's one would think from their November 1967 cover story — quoted Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. as saying, "He is as brilliant an adversary as he is bankrupt an advocate."
And in the same piece, M.I.T. Professor of Political Science Lincoln P. Bloomfield summed it up this way: "He 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."
Sitting jut-jawed in his hotel room, sparring happily with radio reporters and newsmen around the fumes of a thick black cigar, Buckley was clearly doing what he most enjoys: Espousing his own doctrine in his own irreverent way.
"One last question, Mr. Buckley," asked a reporter. "Considering your rather overwhelming defeat in the New York mayoralty race, do you have any serious plans as a future candidate?"
"Only very unserious ones," he said, relishing every word.
That could be a shame for the spectators.