In 1992, I published a history of punditry, and Buckley, naturally, figured rather prominently in its pages. We had had a relatively pleasant interview, and I was awfully kind, all things considered. Two years later, he wrote me out of the blue to say that he had “sighed but accepted as inevitable the populist blather about my superordinate concern for skiers in Gstaad and yachtsmen in the Caribbean.” What bothered him was my description of him as a “self-styled aristocrat.” He said he would be “grateful if [I] would explain to [him] how [I] came upon that designation” since he had never referred to himself as such, adding, “(which incidentally, aristocrats would never do).” Then came a particularly Buckley-esque afterthought: “Ah. Maybe that’s it! Because I have never called myself an aristocrat, I therefore take on that mannerism of an aristocrat—becoming one, to be sure, self-styled.” He asked how best to spot such a self-styled aristocrat. “Share your secrets. Be a redistributionist á outrance,” he begged before offering his “cordial regards.”

I’ll admit I was happy to hear from the old guy. I replied almost immediately, telling him that since it was Christmas eve, I imagined he was in Gstaad, “or better yet, some Caribbean island of which I have not even heard.” Dear reader, I fear I cannot help but admit that even after the previous episode of abuse, this letter was even more nakedly suck-upish (and naïve) than the previous one. I (pathetically) congratulated Buckley on the audaciousness of his reply to that moron about the stuffed goose 16 years earlier. I only half-jokingly suggested that the guilt I hoped he felt over his mistreatment of me three years earlier would have garnered me at least an invitation to be a substitute liberal on Firing Line (visions of Galbraithdom dancing in my head). Then I got into real trouble: Responding to his “self-styled aristocrat” inquiry, I compared Buckley to the “vulgar rich among my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends” in suburban Westchester. I did not mean to say they were particularly vulgar as rich people go, just that they were unlikely to call themselves “the vulgar rich.” Similarly, I added, in a country where all aristocrats are by definition of the self-styled variety, no wonder Buckley didn’t think to call himself one. I admitted that this might constitute a minor victory for Buckley, but one that was “so slight” it was “beneath the quality of those to which [he had] become accustomed. I mean, after electing a malleable dolt like Ronald Reagan to the highest office in the land, getting a punk like me to withdraw an adjective must seem an awful anticlimax.”

In his reply, Buckley disputed my memory, insisting that he didn’t even know what stuffed goose tasted like. (He apparently forgot that he had been joking . . .) He advised me that my modifiers had been misplaced. It was not, he noted, Mr. Reagan who had turned out to be “malleable, but the Soviet Union.” Finally, he said, “The victory I have won may be slight in your eyes, but inasmuch as it is the only victory I set out to win,” he was pleased. He added that my “capitulation on this modest point is welcome.”

The sailing invites remained unsent. What I got instead was a furious phone call from my mom, saying how hurt she was that I had insulted her friends in a national magazine. I took a few moments to collect myself before figuring out what had happened. The SOB had done it again—published my private correspondence without bothering to ask permission. I was furious. Remember, I am a Jewish boy, taught to make my parents proud. The idea of hurting my mother in a public way was intensely painful to me. I immediately wrote Buckley of his inexcusable violation of the code between gentlemen. He wrote back, explaining that he “routinely” published the letters he received, and so he believed the onus was on the writer to be aware of this and to act accordingly. That’s it—no apology, no nothing. I wrote back that I found his cavalier treatment of my right to privacy to be an affront to “common decency,” and given that he had now behaved thoughtlessly three times, he was clearly a hopeless case. I closed: “Mr. Buckley, you are not, after all, a gentleman. When your number comes up, and your supplicants are fawning over your alleged virtues, as they have done for your racist and anti-Semitic comrade, Richard Nixon, I will do the my best to remind the larger public of the truth,” and this time, gave him permission to print the letter.

Which he did.


Eric Alterman is distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY School of Journalism. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a columnist for The Nation and the Forward. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.