This infuriated me more than I can say, but even if Buckley hadn’t died, I couldn’t be sure I could win a suit or that I could afford one if I didn’t. I did believe I had the law on my side. Buckley’s violation of the rights to my letters had vastly exceeded “fair use” laws. I deserved retribution and looked forward to throwing a big party with (a part, I hoped, of) the cash settlement that might go along with it.
But here’s the thing: Writers make a living based on a calculation in which one’s genius must be at least proportional to one’s reputation for being a pain in the ass. Being good at what you do is only part of the job; a second, no-less important qualification, at least in the days when I was learning the trade, is that one prove oneself “clubbable,” to use an extremely old-fashioned term. One needed to know how to go to expensive lunches and fancy cocktail parties and not cause too much trouble outside of one’s work (unless like, say, Christopher Hitchens or P. J. O’Rourke, “trouble” was your thing). I did not mind garnering a reputation for being “difficult” about trying to protect what I understood to be the quality and integrity of my writing; indeed, I suppose I cultivated one. But at the same time I was careful not to threaten my clubbability in matters social and personal.
I had had a couple of occasions to confront Buckley. One, ironically, was on a boat. The Nation sent me on a National Review cruise to Alaska in 1997 (the piece about my adventures was called “Heart of Whiteness”). The night I was scheduled to sit at the captain’s table with Buckley, he did not show, preferring to have a private dinner with his sister. He dropped by to say hello, and that was that. Another evening, many months later, we exchanged a few pleasantries at a Peggy Siegal movie screening. Had I made a big deal of Buckley’s mistreatment of me at this or any similar occasion, it would not have mattered a whit whether I had been right or wrong; I would have developed a reputation for being a troublemaker in public, and the invitations would have dried up, along with writing assignments.
Then there was the “principle” of the matter. As it happens, I have foresworn all principles, except those relating to poker (I never bet when I’m sitting directly on the dealer’s left). Most journalists I know hold to the principle that journalists should not sue other journalists for revealing information that someone, especially the journalist in question, would prefer to keep secret. I agree with this argument in the abstract. An expansive interpretation of the protections granted by the First Amendment are a cornerstone not only of my profession but also of my personal and political philosophy. Did the fact that Buckley was treating me like a contemptible schmuck and getting away with it outweigh my belief in unfettered freedom of speech? Now add the complication that Buckley himself had successfully sued Vidal way back when for calling him a Nazi on ABC News. He clearly believed in lawsuits that had the potential to stifle freedom of speech. Why did he deserve to benefit from a principle he obviously did not share himself?
Yet another wrinkle developed. I became friendly with the estimable Christopher Buckley, son of the great man. We were not spend-the-holidays-together friends; we were more the run-into-one-another-at parties-and-drink-too-much kind of friends. (These parties, one might correctly surmise, were often chez Hitchens, and I have little memory of the details.) I do remember that when Chris was the editor of Forbes FYI, he was good enough to send me off around the globe, and I don’t even know if he ever published my articles.