On the Firing Line
Where have you gone,
William F. Buckley Jr.?
In 2016, the Hoover Institution Library & Archives unveiled an exhibition that explored the history of one of the twentieth century's longest-running political talk shows, Firing Line, and the distinguished career of the show's host, William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley was known for his accomplished powers in debate, his quick wit, and notably, his use of long, arcane words that often flummoxed guests on his show. For thirty-three years, he literally and figuratively darted his tongue at presidential hopefuls, political activists, religious leaders, artists, and ideologists. Buckley held the unique power to dismantle his adversaries' arguments not by derision or emphatic disagreement but by exploiting the internal contradictions in what his opponent had said or written—and in doing so he used words such as periphrastic, tergiversation, and eristic.
Buckley's career and reputation can safely be said to represent the Cold War adage that words are weapons in a war of ideas; and he fought with a full arsenal. An eclectic reader fluent in several languages (Buckley had been educated in France, England, and Mexico before graduating from Yale with honors in 1950), Buckley had a memory like a steel trap, capturing ten-dollar vocabulary words with the same intensity it did the legal precedents he used as rebuttals in debate.
For the twentieth anniversary episode of the show, titled "Bill Buckley and Firing Line Get Roasted," staff members generated an in-house list of "Bill Buckley's favorite words" which appeared on helium balloons at the party on January 14, 1986. Of the many sesquipedalian gems on the list, nearly half, such as synecdoche (a figure of speech that uses a part to indicate a whole) or antonomasia (use of a proper name to express general ideas), read as if gleaned from the glossary of a linguistics manual—not surprising, perhaps, for a man who would pen several books on language and usage, such as Buckley: The Right Word (1996) and The Lexicon (1998).
Taped to a clipping of an article titled "Epigones Roast Buckley with Hot Air Balloons" is a commemorative balloon sporting the word epigone. The article reports that at the twentieth anniversary party journalist Jeff Greenfield sportingly commented that the audience of Buckley's "roast" should "listen to his choice of words, which we honor tonight with these balloons—which are, appropriately enough, filled with hot air."
Hippies and "New Journalists"
The Archives' rich documentation of Buckley's reputation as an authority on lexicon, grammar, and usage, however, also raises more pressing questions concerning Buckley's overall legacy as a man of letters. What was Buckley's relationship with other twentieth-century masters of the language, many of whom appeared on Firing Line? Buckley sustained close and often contentious relationships with many of the most talented and politically active writers of his time. How did his friendships—or altercations—with writers shape his outlook on the power of language and literature? Especially when considering that the last three decades of Buckley's life were dominated by literary pursuits—a fact often overlooked in the context of Buckley's long television and journalism career and vast political influence—the question of Buckley's relationship to novels, novelists, and popular culture seems not a footnote to his legacy but a way of understanding its nuances.
Throughout his career on television, Buckley sparred with the most important—and often most liberal—political figures of his day, but his frequent inclusion of writers and artists on the roster of guests on Firing Line speaks to the fact that Buckley did not limit his interest to specific matters of policy but maintained a curiosity as to the direction of American culture as a whole. On two separate episodes, for example, he discussed the pervasive hippie counterculture with Beat writers Allen Ginsberg (who accused Firing Line of censoring his beloved "dirty words") and a somewhat intoxicated Jack Kerouac.
Just months after discussing the hippie culture of drugs, free love, and bad language that Buckley found to be "radical, sort of proto-socialist, sort of not quite right" with Ginsberg, he ventured into his most legendary—and certainly most vituperative—public debate with a novelist. His on-air contretemps with ultra-liberal Gore Vidal at the August 1968 presidential conventions, which became the subject of the fascinating documentary Best of Enemies in 2015, turned political debate into near blood sport—devolving to the point where Vidal's castigating Buckley as a "crypto-Nazi" caused Buckley to retort by calling Vidal a "queer" and offering fisticuffs. Ostensibly programmed by ABC as a discussion of presidential hopefuls by a leading liberal and leading conservative, the heated debate transformed into a deeply personal battle about the values of America—and must-watch TV.
While Buckley would have many amicable exchanges with novelists—spending a genteel hour discussing "The Southern Imagination" with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, for example, or discussing the nature of time and memory with Jorge Luis Borges—he seemed most engaged (though often agitated) when debating the writers who represented the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s: namely, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe. As a journalist himself, Buckley was curious—and often skeptical—of the New Journalists' appropriation of literary techniques for nonfiction, combining subjective perspectives with intensive reportage. Across the years, however, one can see Buckley's initial distrust of the strategies of New Journalism soften, perhaps as he began to evaluate the composition of his own literary works, which he would begin publishing in 1976.
Buckley was quick to recognize New Journalism as an influential force in literature, media, and politics despite his reservation toward the New Journalists' emphasis on "truth" rather than "fact." After Truman Capote's chilling nonfiction work In Cold Blood (1965), generally considered the pioneering work of the New Journalism movement, shocked the nation by exposing the story of unrepentant murderers in Kansas, Buckley invited Capote to Firing Line to discuss the novel and Capote's opinions on capital punishment.
Buckley, knowing that Capote had been vocal in the debate about the death penalty (Capote was at that time melding interviews he conducted with convicted murderers into the documentary film Death Row, U.S.A.), launched the episode by questioning Capote as to whether he believed the death penalty to be a viable deterrent to homicide. Capote waffled on the question, arguing that the death penalty as it exists in America—"a masquerade in which people are selected very arbitrarily and occasionally executed"—does not deter murder. When Capote opined that the hope of being released from prison often impels inmates toward rehabilitation, Buckley immediately questioned who should be empowered to deem an inmate a curable penitent or a compulsive, homicidal maniac. The underlying suggestion is that Capote, in In Cold Blood, combining research with, as he put it "empathy and my own intuition and insight," judged and condemned Perry Smith, convicted of the slaughter of the Clutter family, as a hopeless, homicidal maniac. Capote defended himself by saying that "the best psychiatrist in the world would, by definition, have to be also an artist, you know, to reach that level of intensity of insight into a person."
What Buckley objects to most in this episode is not necessarily Capote's stance on capital punishment—which is obfuscated and difficult to parse—but Capote's reliance on exceptionalism (as an artist who has interviewed dozens of murderers) and the moralizing methodology that it threatens to produce.
Buckley would push this line of inquiry again with Tom Wolfe in 1970, after Wolfe's essay "Radical Chic," which lampooned the Black Panthers and the New York intelligentsia with equal vitriol, drew inflammatory remarks from critics. Like Capote, Wolfe believed that the methods of New Journalism brought intimate insight to the subject an author researched, but rejected overly empathetic engagement, remarking that "many writers today approach a subject out of compassion or out of some kind of moral or political motivation. To me it's really beside the point." For Wolfe, the object of the work was not to render value judgments on the subjects but to provide the dialogue, details, and artifacts that allow the readers to form their own opinions of an individual or situation.
The Executioner's Song
Overall, Buckley seemed most satisfied with the journalistic approach taken in the works of Norman Mailer—particularly in The Executioner's Song (1979). Like In Cold Blood, Mailer's novel features an unrepentant killer as its subject, tracing the life of the murderer Gary Gilmore from childhood to firing squad. In his opening to the Firing Line episode dedicated to Mailer's novel Buckley, who a decade before had referred to Mailer's literary technique as "unalloyed narcissism," praised the book not just for its exhaustive research but for the fact that "this is not a book about Mailer; and not a book, were you to pick it up not knowing the identity of the author, that would lead you to guess his identity. You would, however, know instantly that you were in the hands of a master."
As with Capote, Buckley starts off the episode by asking if the work was a conscious statement for or against the death penalty; Mailer replied that "in writing this book I put away just about every attitude and stance that I'd developed over the thirty years of writing." Though he had initially intended to make the book a condemnation of capital punishment and the prison system, his interviews yielded such complex human stories that "he knew more and more" but "understood less and less" as he researched, making it impossible to editorialize on the situations he sought to capture.
Nevertheless, Mailer considered The Executioner's Song a novel (but not an "imaginative novel") because "in fiction, what we want to do is create life. We want to give the readers the feeling that they are participating in the life of the characters they're reading about. And to the degree that they're participating in it, they shouldn't necessarily understand everything that's going on any more than we do in life." For Mailer, the novel of the school of New Journalism offered real history and uncertainty—and provided no definitive moral answers to complications. Buckley understood the change of Mailer's literary technique—his relinquishing of editorializing his narrative—as a sign of the writer's maturity.
Buckley's favorable appraisal of Norman Mailer's evolving literary form dovetailed with his own initial experiments in the world of fiction writing: in 1976, Buckley launched his Blackford Oakes series, a collection of mystery thrillers that featured a protagonist who, like Buckley, had attended Yale in the late 1940s and subsequently served in the CIA in Mexico City. Buckley's bold turn toward espionage fiction at the age of fifty is one of the most unusual yet least researched aspects of the long career of a man of letters who received twenty-nine honorary degrees and countless awards—including the American Book Award for Best Mystery in 1980.
Though many scholars assume the Oakes novels to be the diversion of an aging man of letters facing retirement (on par with Buckley's two other loves: sailing and playing the harpsichord), Buckley's own comments about the inspiration and construction of the novels make clear that they communicated not just the author's political engagement but a considered response to the writers and literary trends of the late twentieth century.
In an interview with Sam Vaughan in the Paris Review in 1996, Buckley explains his approach to the espionage novel in terms that echo Mailer's discussion of his methodology in The Executioner's Song: "a combination of invention and known history," but one which does not turn into "an editorial." Like Mailer, Wolfe, Capote, and Don DeLillo (whom he praises highly), Buckley tackled historical figures as subjects: Fidel Castro, Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy, and other significant figures of twentieth-century history make appearances in the Oakes novels. Using extensive research, Buckley attempted to create intrigue around known historical figures and events and tells Vaughan he tried to avoid acts of "historical revisionism" that would frustrate readers.
Throughout the conversation with Vaughan, Buckley makes clear that his preoccupation with the dangers of historical revisionism is inspired by two factors: the end of the Cold War and the rise of (in his view) lackluster literature that obscured the Cold War's impact.
For Buckley, a Cold Warrior in the style of the late Hoover fellow Robert Conquest, the titanic struggle between democracy and communism was unequivocally "the great political drama of the twentieth century"—a set fact that was anchored in the death toll of Stalin's Great Terror. Buckley feared that the magnitude and significance of the Cold War might be lost in its aftermath and lamented that often contemporary writers made the struggle "look like a microcosmic difference, say some slight difference of opinion, between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers."
For Buckley, the worst offender in the arena of historical revisionism was Graham Greene, whose celebrated spy novels The Third Man (1949), The Quiet American (1955), and Our Man in Havana (1958) had become benchmarks of the espionage genre. Greene's spies were at best unintelligent and ideologically ambiguous; at worst, amoral and incompetent. Conversely, Blackford Oakes was educated, handsome, competent, and, as one might imagine—articulate. Buckley would end the Oakes series with a blatant provocation aimed at Greene: in Last Call for Blackford Oakes, the character of the notorious British double agent Kim Philby is given the pseudonym "Martins"—the name of the traitor-protagonist of Greene's most celebrated spy novel, The Third Man. Unlike Martins and other protagonists like him, Oakes approaches his enemies with a clear understanding of the clashing ideologies of the Cold War, as well as his own loyalties.
While expressing his characteristically strong—and well-worded—opinions during the interview with Vaughan, it becomes clear that Buckley sincerely enjoyed the challenge of transforming his historical knowledge into imaginative suspense, even if he was aware that after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union many American readers might not care to be reminded of communism and the Cold War.
A man of many words—an estimated 4.5 million in his syndicated column, and millions more in his fifty-five published books—Buckley wrote espionage novels that establish that he deserves to be remembered not just as a political pundit and great debater but as a wordsmith of astounding range. As one critic put it: "A writer in his own Right."
More Literary Figures
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