Bill Buckley and Gore Vidal

Bill Peschel runs a very entertaining site called The Reader’s Almanac. It’s what he calls his “2008-2009 nonfiction book project. A year’s worth of entertaining and thought-provoking stories and anecdotes about writers and their books, tied to the day they occurred”.

His posts are intricate and thoughtful, much more so than the average 55 word blurbs of most blogs, as you would expect from a professional writer and journalist.

Since two of my earliest media influences (besides Saturday morning cartoons and the NASA moon shots) were Jean Shepherd on WOR radio and Bill Buckley on WNET, when Bill wrote about WFB in this week’s post it caught my attention.

He wrote…


Forty years ago, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley debated issues arising from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where anti-war protesters battled police near the convention hall. During the third of their four debates, the politics became personal. Vidal and Buckley clashed over the protests. When moderator Howard K. Smith observed that the raising of the Vietcong flag in Grant Park was similar in effect to raising the Nazi flag during World War II, Gore objected. The U.S. had not declared war in Vietnam, many people object to the war, and besides, the protesters had a constitutional right to dissent. Buckley objected, again attacking the dissenters as Nazis. “As far as I’m concerned,” Vidal told him, “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” “Now listen, you queer,” Buckley said, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in you goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

 (snip… of a lot of good stuff you should go read)

Buckley sued Vidal and the magazine for libel, and settled out of court, with no public resolution of who was at fault. But elsewhere, it was clear that the queer beat down the crypto-Nazi at his own game.


I replied to this post…


>the queer beat down the crypto-Nazi at his own game. Probably not. Buckley’s persona and publishing institutions supported and provided frameworks for the right wing/conservative/republican/Christian (chose your term of derision) political movement that peaked with Reagan and is still echoing today. I think it is fair to say that the Obama phenomena is more a reaction against the movement that Bill (and Pricilla) Buckley fostered than any substance from Vidal’s circle. (Hence Obama’s lack of substance; he doesn’t need policy substance if his position is to be NOT the current stream.) I’d argue that that stream in large part flowed from NR and Firing Line and the right wing thinkers they supported. Regardless of how one feels about his politics – and the terms arrogant, elitist, monarchial, papist all fit – Buckley was a force that influenced politics for decades. The Vidal exchange and others like it didn’t sideline that juggernaut for a moment, and we are still dealing with the implications of that failure today. Doug


Bill Peschel’s site is well worth the daily read, and I’m not just saying that because he left me a nice reply. I hope you all stop by and test out his waters.

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  1. Posted September 1, 08 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Interesting. I had not heard of these debates and I’m fascinated. As one who WOULD equate the raising of the Vietcong flag equivalent to the raising of the Nazi flag during WWII, I find that kind of protest only drives me to the opposite direction. However, I believe in their right to protest. It’s amazing to me how the debate continues and every generation has its sticking point. Great post, Doug. Thanks.

  2. Doug
    Posted September 1, 08 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment Jenn. I’ll have to get a post up about Jane Fonda and we can have some fun with that…

    I think that Buckley deeply believed in the right of free speech and in its power. The underlying mission of Firing Line was to engage and change the liberal point of view, not from preaching right wing sound bites but from debate. The leisurely hour long format gave plenty of time for that conversation to ensue. Buckley’s belief was that given time, the logic of his positions would prevail.

    And often it did, not just from the strength of his persona, so wonderfully satirized by Robin Williams in Disney’s movie Aladdin, but by an an endless chain of logic.

    A number of times Buckley had the head of the ACLU on Firing Line as “examiner” to provide comments and counter point to the contents of his show. On many issues such as the rights of arrested Americans (Miranda was a new ruling back then) they disagreed, but on others, such as the right to privacy, it tended to be a love fest.

    I wonder how those exchanges would play out today?

  3. Bill Peschel
    Posted September 1, 08 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Since I already answered your comment on my blog I won’t repeat it here. It amused me that, following a link from Arts & Letters Daily, I came across “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons,” intended to argue against the point raised, and found you’ve taken care of that chore already. Thanks!

  4. Doug
    Posted September 1, 08 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    OK Bill, that’s too small a world!

    For those of you wondering what we are talking about, I took the side of office refrigerators everywhere in the debate of the Tragedy of the Commons:

    Click through to the comments to see the outrage…

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