Thursday, February 28, 2008

Socked In The God Damned Face

"Oh Bill, you're so extraordinary."

So quipped Gore Vidal, after being told by William F. Buckley, Jr. that if he didn't stop calling the effete reactionary a crypto-Nazi, he'd get pummeled, or slapped, or pinched, or something. Vidal's response was lost in the din caused by ABC news anchor Howard K. Smith trying to restore what decorum existed, but it illustrated how little Vidal thought of Buckley.

"A right wing clown act," he said in a 1969 Playboy interview. Despite many of his own faults, Vidal absolutely nailed Buckley's public essence. A right wing clown act, indeed.

Vidal later complained about how his name was always linked to Buckley, whose family he described as "the sick Kennedys," but Gore has no one but himself to blame for that. He willingly appeared alongside Buckley on ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions, providing, if not sustained intellectual discourse, then certainly entertaining TV, decades before flinging physical threats and nasty putdowns became a permanent feature of the medium.

WFB was a reactionary that elite liberals loved. The New York Times' multimedia tribute to him is not surprising, glossing over Buckley's less attractive stances in his long public career. But that was Buckley's true talent: making reprehensible opinions palatable to liberal tastes. He was much smoother than Ann Coulter, but not that different in ideological outlook. Coulter crashes into rooms, yelling, spitting bile in all directions. WFB slid in almost silently, his bouncing eyebrows the sole evidence of his presence -- until he spoke, that is -- and even then, bullshit oozed from his mouth in polysyllabic strips, with liberals like John Kenneth Galbraith and Murray Kempton eagerly lapping up his crap.

For all of Buckley's social charms, augmented by his harpsichord playing, let's recall that he and his money-losing magazine National Review opposed civil rights for African-Americans while backing white Southern statist repression in the 1950s and early '60s. Buckley himself openly questioned the logic of giving blacks the vote at all, hinting that "chaos" might ensue if the darker hordes voted in a bloc. WFB was also a dedicated McCarthyite, "a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks," and despite what his apologists now say, he defended the nuts in the John Birch Society as "some of the most morally energetic self-sacrificing and dedicated anti-Communists in America," and wrote for the American Mercury when it was an anti-Semitic rag.

Ever the careerist, Buckley wised up in time, ditching the Jew-haters on his wing in order to enjoy wider acceptance in the mainstream media. If Buckley continued to believe that Jews were behind international communism, he was savvy enough not to say so once his celebrity status rose.

Then there was this helpful suggestion in 1986: "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." Beautiful. And where did this scientific opinion appear? Why, in the New York Times, of course.

But above all else, WFB was a dedicated warmonger, advocating imperial violence throughout much of his career. He was especially keen on slaughtering Vietnamese, calling the U.S. carpet-bombing and napalming of those people a form of tough "love." Yet despite his support of killing millions in Southeast Asia, he wasn't as eloquent a defender of mass murder as advertised. In 1969, on his talk show "Firing Line," Buckley tried to make his genocidal case to Noam Chomsky, who promptly and efficiently took Buckley apart, piece by rancid piece. It was one of the rare instances in which Buckley allowed a superior debater and intellect to appear on the same stage. He didn't make that mistake again, not with Chomsky, anyway. Watch and see what a man looks like when he's drowning on dry land.