Bill Buckley Gets Bigger Over Time
Biographer Sam Tanenhaus calls him the architect of modern conservatism and the inventor of the TV debate format. Yet today generations have no idea who Buckley was.
In the late ’60s, NBC and CBS were the most-watched TV networks and ABC was a distant third. (“It would have been fourth, but there were only three,” former NBC exec Richard Wald once joked.) For its coverage of the 1968 presidential election, ABC’s news operation lacked a high-wattage name like Walter Cronkite at CBS or David Brinkley at NBC. To liven up its convention coverage that fall, ABC seated conservative William F. Buckley beside liberal Gore Vidal and waited for sparks to fly.
And, wow, did sparks fly:
Vidal: “The only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.
Buckley: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.”
That exchange, which would be considered over the line on Fox News or MSNBC today, was on live television. In 1968! “It’s the one time it happened, the one time he lost his cool,” says Sam Tanenhaus, the former editor of the New York Times Book Review who is writing a biography of Buckley. “He regretted it for a very long time.”
The Daily Beast recently caught up with Tanenhaus for a wide-ranging conversation about appearing as a talking head in Best of Enemies—the new documentary that looks at Buckley and Vidal's 10-day debate—as well as the status of his long-gestating Buckley biography, his years at the New York Times Book Review, and his thoughts on John Updike, Robert Caro, Garry Wills, and other major literary figures of the last half-century.
How’s the biography going?
I told the publisher, Random House, that I would get it to them in 2016, and that’s the plan. The reason I left the Times was so that I could finish it.
You left the Times last year, right?
I left in mid-December when they did the last round of attractive buyouts.
And you had already been writing for a while then, right?
Omigosh, yes. I signed the contract for this a long time ago. Sometimes people will ask when the manuscript is due, and I’ll say, “It’s due in June, but I’m not sure what decade.” [Laughs.]
Has Buckley’s significance changed over time?
Buckley gets bigger and bigger over time as his uniqueness becomes more apparent. People who remember him—even if they didn’t like him back in the day—who were piqued by him for one reason or another, now remember him nostalgically. It happens to all these great figures, especially conservatives. People hated Barry Goldwater until there was no Barry Goldwater left and they became Goldwater idolaters.
But you have another thing going on with Bill Buckley, which is that people of a certain [younger] age have no idea who he was; he means absolutely nothing to them. And that shows you how quickly time moves and how fast the past recedes. The fact that Bill Buckley is not remembered by almost everyone is kind of mind-boggling.
How do you tend to order Buckley’s roles in your head—TV personality, then political thinker, then author?
You take those three things and try to find the throughline. He is the intellectual architect of the modern conservative movement. He was not the greatest conservative thinker. He probably was its best sentence-by-sentence writer. He was a maestro on television. He more or less invented the contemporary debate show. Though if you watch episodes of Firing Line, they’re almost Monty Python parodies; everyone is so polite and genteel. There was a wonderful eccentricity that he had and that he brought out in his guests.
He was a columnist. He told me once that if you published all of his columns in book form, it would add up to something like 25 books. So author, television personality, columnist—sage and mentor. He mentored two important political figures—Goldwater and then Reagan.
And you knew him, didn’t you?
I interviewed him many times over the years. I lived in Tarrytown, New York, and I would drive over to Stamford, Connecticut. He divided his time between Stamford and Manhattan, but Stamford is where he liked to be. That’s where the boat was, and he had these beautiful views of the Long Island Sound. I would go to his house, and we would go to a restaurant nearby that he liked. I remember asking him at his house about his relationships with Goldwater and Reagan. He said, “They came to me.” And that was really important to him. Bill wasn’t a braggart by any means. He just wanted to be clear that he had not sought their approval or friendship or alliance.
He was the founding editor of an extraordinary magazine, National Review, and I’m writing on that now. It’s a really remarkable piece of history. He created it to educate political actors and promote political ideas at their most lucid and workable—not conservative theory but ideas— and to be a home for intellectuals who were on their own in the McCarthy era of the mid-’50s. He gave them a place to think and talk and engage in a truly viable, modern conservatism. It was important for him for National Review to be truly independent rather than Republican. We tend to think of them as identical now, but they were not in the mid-’50s.
Buckley had an accent that always sounded to me like Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island. Was that a blueblood accent? The Groton lockjaw?
It’s so funny. There were 10 Buckley children—so nine siblings and Buckley—and a few of them sounded exactly like him and the rest didn’t. He talked that way, his brother Reid, his sister Patricia, and his sister Jane spoke that way. They had all been educated at boarding school in England in their teens. What you don’t hear—did you grow up in the South?
I did. Near Nashville.
Do you hear any of the South in Bill?
Not really. Do you?
His mother was from New Orleans, and his father was from deep southern Texas. They were Southerners. I maintain—and you’ll probably say I’m totally wrong about this—that if you listen really closely to Bill, you’ll hear a kind of drawl. He was raised in Connecticut with a family of displaced Southerners. His father had planned for them to be in Mexico; he was an oil wildcatter who got driven out by the revolution and lost a fortune. Bill spoke Spanish before he spoke English. His voice was very animated. In person, his features and his voice had a lot of swoops up and down the scale. He was a Connecticut guy, which I’m discovering now as my wife and I have just moved to Connecticut. In Best of Enemies, he and Gore Vidal sound a lot alike.
Best of Enemies is about Buckley and Vidal at the 1968 conventions. Was that when most people learned who Buckley was?
No, he was already famous. He had run for mayor of New York in 1965, and it was a really fun and fascinating campaign. I wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine about it in 2005, which was the 40th anniversary of that campaign. That campaign really put him on the map, and Firing Line came out of that. During the mayoral campaign, there was a newspaper strike. As they were approaching Election Day, there was basically a news blackout. The television stations had debates, and Bill was the star.
He was a great debater. Best of Enemies does not show him at his best as a debater, because he kind of got ambushed by Gore Vidal. Bill’s idea was to have an ideological argument, and he was really funny. He kind of made John Lindsay, who was a really charismatic guy, look like a stiff. Right after that in 1966 came Firing Line. Bill was on every Sunday, and he became the conservative that liberals loved to hate and were fascinated by. He was funny, he was smart, he had the giant vocabulary, and he was incredibly quick. He was getting more national attention than Reagan, who was running for governor of California at the same time.
What was it that Vidal called Buckley that got him so upset? Crypto-conservative?
Right, crypto-Nazi. What did Vidal mean by that?
Crypto really means secret, like a crypt. In that exchange, Bill had made some comparison with student protesters and the Viet Cong, and Gore turns it around and says Buckley was a crypto-Nazi. The backdrop of this was the Chicago convention in 1968, which was a nightmare. It was a police riot—one of the lowest moments in modern American life. I’m old enough to remember it; I was 12 watching it with my father on TV. You saw protesters getting beaten and gassed. It was a very intense time, and that debate was about that particular moment.
And Buckley’s response where he says, “Now listen, you queer,” is the most unglued I’ve ever seen him.
It’s the one time it happened, the one time he lost his cool. He regretted it for a very long time, and I think I mention in Best of Enemies how Ted Koppel later interviewed Buckley, and Buckley was visibly stunned. He said to me right after, “I was sure they had destroyed that tape.” There had been a big lawsuit [over this article]. Bill had sued Esquire and Vidal, and it got very complicated. To Vidal, it seemed like more of a big joke. When they turned the camera off, Gore said, “We gave them a pretty good show tonight, didn’t we?”
When did you meet Buckley?
I had known him from the previous book I wrote, Whitaker Chambers: A Biography, about Whittaker Chambers. Buckley had helped me a lot on that book because Chambers, who had been involved in the Alger Hiss case, was kind of a hero and friend to him. So I met Bill around 1990.
There are two quotes that are frequently attributed to Buckley. One is the “standing athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” What was the context for that?
That’s really interesting. It’s in the publishers statement for the very first issue of National Review, which had the cover date of November 19, 1955. It was then a weekly journal; now it’s a fortnightly—which is a useful term that no one uses anymore—every other week.
Only at Wimbledon.
Exactly. It’s so useful, though. You say “bi-weekly” and “bi-monthly,” and nobody knows what you mean; you say “fortnightly,” and it’s very clear what it means. A lot of Bill’s vocabulary was very baroque like that; people thought he was very show-off-y. Buckley was a very precise writer and speaker. He said exactly what he meant, and that was very true of the statement about “standing athwart history.” That was the statement announcing the arrival of the National Review.
The context is that this is a time when conservatives like himself were not being much listened to. It was 1955, the aftermath of Joe McCarthy’s fall. Bill had written a book about Joe McCarthy and was quite close to him. McCarthy was the litmus test and lightning rod for that period’s intellectuals; you either hated McCarthy or you defended him. What that did was spotlight how marginalized Bill Buckley and his small cohort of conservatives felt at that time. They felt there was no place for them—that they were essentially shut out of the debate because they had defended McCarthy.
One of Bill’s great insights that had originated in his first book, God and Man at Yale, which he wrote in his mid-20s after he left college, was that the battles were cultural, that the liberals dominated the cultural debate. Conservatives still make that argument today. In the Obama years, conservatives probably have some grounds for saying it, but even in the years when conservatives dominated the cultural and social controversies, conservatives would say that the liberals controlled the media. That originated with Bill Buckley.
What about the other quote, the one about the Boston phone book?
He said, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard,” which is a really brilliant thing to say. It’s really a statement about democracy and knowledge. Actually, I’ll tell you and nobody else knows this, he originally wrote, “I’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Garden City Long Island phone book,” but then he changed it because Harvard’s in Boston.
He also has a really famous quote from his campaign for mayor of New York. Someone asked him what he would do if he won, and he said he would demand a recount. That’s fantastic.
Do you have a sense of whether Buckley had a better time in the ’60s or the ’70s?
I think Bill was really at home in the ’60s. Many of his friends were liberals like Norman Mailer. Buckley’s closest friend on the left was probably John Galbraith, and he was great pals with Murray Kempton. Kempton and Buckley were both ’50s guys waiting for the ’60s to happen. The ’60s were more antic and anarchic, and that’s really where Bill Buckley was at his best.
The ’50s were boring for him. If you look at commentary and essays from people on the left like Irving Howe and Harold Rosenberg, they hated the consensus, can’t-we-all-get-along ’50s as much as Buckley did, and they often sound alike. Consensus was in its day a word for conformity. The ’60s unbuttoned all of that and unleashed all of these intellectual ids like Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley, who were born in the same year. Bill became a favorite on college campuses because he would say anything, which appealed to the ’60s sensibility.
What about in the ’70s?
The ’70s were also a good time for him. The ’70s don’t really become the ’70s until after Watergate, and that’s when Bill was really becoming a bestselling writer. His sailing books and his novels really took off in the ’70s, and the television program was successful. He was never a huge Nixon fan—Nixon was not really a conservative in Bill’s view—but Bill didn’t really care much about politics. He was more interested in his sailing and his friends and the socializing.
I spent many hours with Bill, and he only talked about politics when I asked him about it. He said, “I only do politics for money.” That’s Firing Line and the column and that sort of thing. The ’70s were a really prosperous time for him. He sailed across the Atlantic and wrote a book called Atlantic High. His spy novels were bestsellers. He had a good time in the ’70s.
You have a lot of material. Are you sure it will be a single volume?
If you sat in my office here, I have two file cabinets. I do it the old-fashioned way; I like paper. I have a table set up adjacent to my desk covered with folders. I have bins with thousands of pages in addition to the file cabinets and more behind me, you wouldn’t believe it. And there’s more to go. He did so much on so many fronts, that it’s hard to keep it all in one’s head. That said—no. I can’t do two volumes.
Robert Caro had an exchange with [his editor] Bob Gottlieb back in the day at Knopf when Caro was writing The Power Broker. The original manuscript for The Power Broker was enormous. He said to Bob Gottlieb, “What if we do two volumes?” And Gottlieb said, “I can sell one book about Robert Moses. I can’t sell two.” It’s up to me to find the best throughline. That’s my job as a biographer for a reader to get as much of the story and the multiple fronts that Bill operated on. If I can’t do it in one volume, then it’s just a great big flop. You know, the greatest of all modern biographers—everybody’s hero—is Richard Ellmann. He did James Joyce in one volume, he did Oscar Wilde in one volume, so it’s got to be doable.
What was your job like when you were the editor of the New York Times Book Review?
I was a manager in part, and then also a colleague. The Book Review has a handful of extremely skilled and seasoned preview editors. They’re the ones who look at the galleys when they come in. The sheer number of galleys is dismaying and alarming. I tell authors that they’d never want to set foot in the New York Times Book Review because you’ll see the galleys—the advance reading copies—in little dumpsters. That’s how they come in, and that’s how they go out.
How did you decide what books to review?
You can only review 1 or 2 percent of the books published each year, so we would do a triage to see which books are not going to be reviewed at all. We didn’t do self-published books, though that’s changing a tiny bit under Pamela Paul, my handpicked successor, if I may say so. We didn’t do reprints. We didn’t do reissues. We tended not to do university press books, which was kind of a shame, but there just wasn’t much space to cover more than a few. Many, many worthy books will not be reviewed.
My job was to meet with editors. The preview editors would have made the judgment on the books they thought we should send out for review, and then we would discuss who should review them. I would be involved in deciding what books would go out for review and helping decide who the reviewer should be. Often the preview editor would have someone in mind. I might have another suggestion, which was always collegial. The best part about the job was the collegiality. I also did the podcast, which was one of the early books podcasts.
Do you miss doing the podcast?
I do. It’s the thing I miss most. I really enjoyed interviewing authors and editors and the books reporter at the Times, whoever it happened to be—Motoko Rich, Julie Bosman, and now Alexandra Alter. We did it every week, and it was quite popular, and it still is. Pamela Paul does a great job. I was a guest on the podcast earlier this year for a review I did on Saul Bellow, who is a particular interest of mine.
You know, with a laptop and a $20 microphone, you could actually start another podcast.
[Laughs.] I don’t have the time! I have to get this book written, and I have been writing a lot more than I thought I would since leaving the Times. I’m doing something for The New Republic. I do a column for Bloomberg View. I have been writing some for a British publication that I really like called Prospect. I like translating literature and politics there for a non-American audience; you really have to think through things that you’d otherwise take for granted. I did a piece for Prospect on Obama, which was an against-the-grain piece saying he was a major president, which I think he is. I’m writing something now for Prospect on Pat Moynihan and have written on Philip Roth and John Updike.
You have a pretty broad interest in 20th century politics and literary history.
I was born in 1955, so I entered my twenties during the ’70s. That’s when my sensibilities were formed. When I was a kid I read Fitzgerald and Hemingway like everyone else. The term I think of it as is “mid-century”—from the ’30s through the ’70s with emphasis on the later decades. The ’50s were fascinating, and all those figures like Bill Buckley who were bored by them made that decade interesting as a starting point. I’m interested in the fiction and especially the criticism from the period—Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson.
And Garry Wills, who may be the greatest public intellectual of our time. I interviewed him for the book, and I wrote a profile of him. He was the most brilliant protege of Bill Buckley, who then became a defector. Bill used to say that National Review was a finishing school for apostates. Garry Wills wrote for National Review, Joan Didion wrote for them, John Leonard, John Gregory Dunne, Renata Adler, Arlene Croce—these really, really important figures all wrote for National Review at one time or another. I like the intersection of politics and literature. That’s why I’m interested in people like Chambers and Buckley. I’m interested in intellectuals who become people of action.
And you’re still writing on authors like Updike and Bellow.
For me, Updike and Bellow and Roth are giants now; they were writing when I was young. My copy of Updike’s Rabbit Redux is the copy I got when I was 15 or 16 through the Book of the Month Club. It’s the only book I ever had signed by an author in all of my years at the book review. We did a long video interview with him for the website. Those figures to me are very large and important. I think of them almost like family, and some of them are still working. Bob Caro is still working. Gay Talese is still working. I saw Garry Wills at the Aspen Ideas Festival a couple of weeks ago, brilliant as ever. Those figures are really important to me.