Parting Shot

WFB shores up his place in the establishment
December 11, 2007

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.”

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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?”

Or when the editor of Evelyn Waugh’s correspondence includes among his letters some samples that make derogatory reference to WFB, but omits others, including a positive reference or two, WFB writes to inquire why he did not “mention in a footnote that Mr. Waugh was friendly to me, and to my journal? I am most anxious for your explanation, as it will facilitate my handling of my critics, who are greatly enjoying themselves on this point.”

Buckley is as zealous in putting down aspersions cast on his journal as on his persona. No sooner does the UK Spectator’s Peregrine Worsthorne, in an essay, wonder why John O’Sullivan would give up his job as Maggie Thatcher’s top speech writer to go to work as Buckley’s replacement on the “fairly obscure” National Review, than WFB ripostes, “Ours is the leading journal of opinion in the United States (circulation 122,000). At our thirtieth anniversary celebration a couple of years ago, the guests included the president of the United States and four members of his Cabinet. At our twentieth anniversary, the principal speaker was Professor Michael Oakeshott, who, at Cambridge once taught Mr. Worsthorne, though not quite enough.”

WFB scores his share of ideological points in his jabs and counterpunches. For example, his campaign against aftra, in which he asks (in a lawsuit, no less) why he is required to join or pay dues to a “private organization” (a.k.a. a union) or be denied his right to work on the public airways. But nothing seems to give WFB more pleasure than deconstructing the ideological opposition on nonideological grounds. When liberal columnist Mary McGrory calls him a “millionaire columnist,” the millionaire columnist asks if she is saying that the “validity of the research is in inverse proportion to the wealth of the researcher?” In these pages, as often as not, style rather than content is king.

In the intro, WFB says his intent “is to instruct and to divert.” Reader: “Why is Qaddafi…only a colonel?” WFB: “Maybe it’s because Qaddafi shot all the generals?” And give him this—he is nothing if not an equal-opportunity diverter. In a not untypical tergiversation (to read WFB is to pick up his tic of using a big word where a small one will do), WFB transforms himself into ombudsman for the privileged. On returning from Atlanta on a two-hour, first-class Delta flight during which only pretzels are served, he writes to advise Delta’s president: “If you persist in these policies, I’d advise you to mount a big sign outside the ticket window: delta does not provide food. bring your own. The airport is crowded with fast-food stations, and it would have very been easy for the passengers to have brought along something to go with the pretzel. An alternative would be to get a student to hawk peanut-butter crackers. Maybe Delta could extract a royalty.”

As far as WFB the instructor is concerned, he reveals himself to be not untalented with the blue-pencil: “The general rule,” he assures a perplexed reader, “is not to begin a sentence with ‘and’; the particular rule is that writers with a good ear know when to break the general rule.”

WFB is perhaps at his most entertaining when in the mode of counterattack. When Vassar’s embarrassed president writes to say that after having invited him to deliver that year’s commencement address, it turned out that the majority of the senior class didn’t love the idea, WFB writes to set the president straight: “The majority of the senior class at Vassar does not desire my company, and I must confess, having read specimens of their thoughts and sentiments, that I do not desire the company of the majority of the senior class at Vassar.” As a fillip, he quotes a professor of English literature who writes in the Vassar newspaper, “It was Buckley who offered pridefully in those days the cast of mind and insinuating attitudes toward academics which intellectually veneered the crudities of Joe McCarthy, and in so doing, fueled ‘McCarthyism’ at its most virulent pitch with respect to the academic community.” Buckley responds: “That the man who composed that sentence should be teaching English at Vassar rather than studying it suggests that Vassar has much, much deeper problems than coming up with a suitable Commencement speaker.”

Cancel has its share of mini-insights about the business of opinion journalism. (“We would soon learn that what costs money in lawsuits isn’t judgments—we have never had an adverse judgment—but self-defense.”) But for me, its most pertinent message, to be found between the wisecracks, is that right-wing journals suffer the same financial depredations (indignities) as their counterparts on the left. Maybe it’s just that after having spent more than twenty-five years listening to The Nation’s humor columnist, Calvin Trillin, complain about being paid in “the high two figures” (actually we ended up paying him $100 a column, not a penny more, not a penny less), I was particularly moved to read the following exchange between WFB and Evelyn Waugh in 1960: WFB: “I am prepared, because of the admiration which I and the editors have for your writing, to offer you a guarantee of $5,000 a year for a piece every few weeks, of two thousand words. That is higher… than what we have paid to Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, Whittaker Chambers….” Despite the shameless, obsequious, and irrelevant comparatives (I know, I have been there, done that)‚ Waugh will have none of it. Waugh: While it is “most gratifying” to be asked, and “I appreciate that in the circumstances your offer is a generous one, but until you get much richer (which I hope will be soon)‚ or I get much poorer (which I fear may be sooner), I am unable to accept it.”

At their best, magazines like National Review (and, if I may say so, in the self-promotional spirit in which WFB has published his book, The Nation) are critical. They put new issues on the agenda. They nourish young writers—in WFB’s case, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, John Leonard, Rick Brookhiser, and in later years, Rich Lowry, the National Review’s current editor, among others—and new ideas. They help keep the mainstream press honest, questioning assumptions, reporting what the mainstream misses. They provide a forum and help set the standard for serious public discourse. Jürgen Habermas, the Frankfurt School philosopher, has in effect identified the journal of opinion as house organ to the public sphere.

As for Buckley and his latest, I’m with the late John Kenneth Galbraith: “Buckley is a master of words; it is only the use to which he puts them that restrains one’s enthusiasm.” 

Victor Navasky is publisher emeritus of The Nation and George T. Delacorte Professor Emeritus of Professional Practice in Magazine Journalism at Columbia University. He served as publisher and editorial director of The Nation; before that, he was the magazine’s editor. Previously, he was an editor at the New York Times magazine. His 1980 book Naming Names won a National Book Award for nonfiction. While on the Columbia Journalism School’s faculty, Navasky was a guiding force of the Columbia Journalism Review.