A confession: back in June of 1988, when journalist John Judis (The New Republic) published his respectable and respectful biography, William F. Buckley Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, I violated The Nation’s traditional church-state division of labor, which guaranteed that the editor (me) would keep his hands off the autonomous back of the book. With the permission of our literary editor, I took the occasion to invite Bob Sherrill, The Nation’s take-no-prisoners White House correspondent (who had been banned from the White House as a security risk for punching out the governor of Florida’s press secretary), to write an essay-review. The idea, I suggested, would be to remind our readers of just how many lives the much-celebrated scourge of liberalism had carelessly ruined in the bad old days of McCarthyism, how irresponsibly he had spoken and behaved. It was Buckley, after all, who co-wrote a book with Brent Bozell, his brother-in-law, in which he said “McCarthyism is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.”
Sherrill, as was his wont, obliged, observing, “What I like about this assignment, it’s a good old-fashioned hatchet job.”
At the time, Buckley was riding high. But the fact was that even by the late 1980s, Buckley was no longer the bad boy of the rad right. Although it is true that he wrote in the mid-1980s that the way to combat aids was to pass a law requiring that homosexuals get a warning tattoo on their ass, it would no longer occur to him to say, as he had in the late 1950s, that Africans will be ready for self-governance “when they stop eating each other.” His magazine may be said to have launched a movement which gave us first Barry Goldwater, and then a president, Ronald Reagan, but by the time Sherrill sat down at his typewriter, Buckley already seemed less interested in shaking up and shocking the establishment than in joining it.
And now, after fifty books—fiction, nonfiction, and in-between—with Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, Buckley makes it more or less official. Why else would he include (and without commenting on) otherwise unexceptional billets-doux from U.S. presidents, a vice president, television anchors, and such? In this harmless collection of often politically neutral exchanges with his readers, friends, critics, and admirers, taken from the “Notes & Asides” column that he presided over from just after National Review’s founding until he retired in 2004, he gives himself most (but not all) of the best punch-lines (the title, is, of course, his response to the classic protesting reader’s request: “Cancel my subscription”). The four brief essays with which Buckley punctuates the chronologically organized material make it clear that he is no longer young, no longer radical, no longer shocking, almost (but not quite) domesticated, which is not to say that he is not still fun to read, or that journal-of-opinion junkies (like yours truly) will not find much junk food (and even an occasional Kobe steak) for thought.
But let’s face it: Cancel is, first and foremost, an exercise in autobiographical protectionism. WFB (which is how he signs his correspondence) is careful to make clear that whatever he might have said as a young upstart, he has no use for John Birchers, the collection of far-right conspiracy theorists, whom he regards as kooks, or Liberty Lobby, the organization of conservative anticommunists that he correctly sees as anti-Semitic.
When a columnist for The Berkshire Eagle, which also carries Buckley’s column, calls him a “notorious anti-Semite,” basing the charge on a Gore Vidal article in Esquire, WFB will be heard. “I should have thought,” he writes to the Eagle’s editor, “that you put a high enough value on your readers to protect them against columns written by a ‘notorious anti-Semite.’ In the event that that isn’t the case, you are less fastidious than I am. Because I would not want to be associated with any newspaper disposed to tolerate among its regular writers a notorious anti-Semite.”
On a pettier level, when Eric Sevareid, the sometimes stuffy cbs commentator, declines to appear on Firing Line because, among other reasons, he was offended by recent writings by Buckley about that quintessential establishment journalist, Teddy White, whom he accuses WFB of having called “a national bore,” Buckley responds, “I have not publicly or privately described Teddy White as a national bore, because I do not believe him to be a national bore .Pray inform your Deep Throat that he is incorrect. Is he, by the way, the same source you regularly rely on when composing your news analyses?”