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.


The first time was in National Review. The second was in what would turn out to be the last book he published during his lifetime, called Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes and Asides From National Review (Basic, 2007). Amazingly, he again included the letter that so upset my mom, which was why I was thinking about suing him. Alas, he died a few months after its October publication.

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.