The first time I laid eyes on Buckley in person was when he gave a paid lecture at Cornell during my freshman year there. The night before his speech, a bunch of lefties had gone around campus and turned all the “Buckley” signs into “Fuckley” signs. (It was 1978, and that’s what passed for political protest.) Buckley spoke on behalf of a flat 15-percent income tax for everyone, I believe, but what made the evening memorable was when, during the question period, one of the lefties stood up, and with a quivering voice, said he wished to ask “one simple question: Mr. Buckley, have you ever gone hungry?” Buckley replied, “Why, yes. My yacht experienced an unfortunate shortage of stuffed goose recently off Nassau in the Bahamas.” Since I identified with the questioner politically in those days, I found myself feeling guilty for thinking that the punk had gotten what he deserved. But I learned a lesson: Humor always trumps self-righteousness, no matter how weak one’s case.
I managed to stay out of Buckley’s way for the next 13 years. I got a master’s degree at Yale, but unlike some of my contemporaries there, I did not get invited to Buckley’s estate in Sharon, CT, to swim naked in between martinis and harpsichord recitals (as the stories at the time went). But in 1990, shortly before returning to graduate school to get my doctorate at Stanford, I authored an article in The Nation in which I—mistakenly, I now think—defended Patrick Buchanan against the charge of anti-Semitism then being leveled in semi-hysterical tones by New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) A. M. Rosenthal. Not long after, Buckley devoted an entire issue of National Review to an essay on the topic of anti-Semitism and ended it by citing my argument as an implied model of good sense on the topic.
Naturally, I was pleased. I had been making a decidedly meager living as a lefty freelance writer—the future prospects of which had sent me back to graduate school—and here I was being cited as an authority on a big topic by a big man in a big way. The “old” right was paying tribute to the “new” left. I imagined the phone call that would invite me on sailing trips in the Côte d’Azur with “Kenny G” (as I thought I might call Galbraith) and a princess or two. We’d all fly back on Buckley’s private plane in time to knock off a Firing Line before a midnight meal at ‘21.’ I wrote Buckley a thank-you note and that, dear reader, is where my troubles began.
Buckley published my letter without my permission in National Review. This drove me crazy. I had written (in confidence, I thought) that I had just been turned down for the job as The Nation’s Washington editor—something I really didn’t want people I knew to know. Gore Vidal had written a then-infamous, rather anti-Semitic essay in The Nation’s 125th anniversary issue, and I also told Buckley that I had, much to my chagrin, agreed more with Neocon sourpuss Norman Podhoretz’s attack on Vidal and The Nation than with Nation editor Victor Navasky’s defense of said article. I had told Navasky this at the time—but I didn’t want anyone thinking myself disloyal to the man who had helped to launch my career, and would become a close friend and frequent mentor (as well as the chairman of this magazine). Rather presumptuously, moreover, I saluted the “care and grace” Buckley brought to the topic of anti-Semitism.
I was shocked by the cavalier disregard with which Buckley felt free to treat what I understood, and certainly intended, to be private correspondence. I had never given Buckley permission to publish it, and having followed the arguments over “fair use” law that tortured J. D. Salinger’s biographers, I felt pretty sure he had no legal right to do so.
I complained; he apologized. End of story. . . . I wish.
It turns out that when Buckley decided to violate your privacy, he didn’t hold back. He republished my letter in the book version of the essay, too. When I complained again, he apologized again, blamed a printer’s error, and then published it again in the paperback version. He appeared to enjoy my outrage.