Current Affairs

How To Be A Respectable Public Intellectual

The pseudo-reasonableness of William F. Buckley shows why nostalgia for an Age of Civility is misplaced.

It should tell you something about conservative intellectualism that the most memorable thing William F. Buckley ever said involved a homophobic slur and a threat of violence. In 1968, during a series of now-legendary televised debates with Gore Vidal, Vidal antagonized Buckley so much that Buckley leaned across and spat at Vidal:

“Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered!”

The debate in question had been about Vietnam War protesters raising the Vietcong flag during demonstrations. The moderator had asked Vidal whether this was comparable to raising a Nazi flag during World War II. Vidal begins to explain why the comparison is ludicrous. The exchange proceeds thusly: 

VIDAL:

You must realize what some of the political issues are here. There are many people in the United States who happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their own country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad, but I assume that the point of the American democracy—

BUCKLEY (interrupting):

—and some people were pro-Nazi—

VIDAL:

—is you can express any view you want—

BUCKLEY:

—and some people were pro-Nazi—

VIDAL:

Shut up a minute!

BUCKLEY:

No, I won’t. Some people were pro-Nazi and, and the answer is they were well treated by people who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care—

VIDAL (loftily):

As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—

SMITH:

Let’s, let’s not call names—

VIDAL:

Failing that, I can only say that—


At this point, Buckley issues his memorable line about face-socking the “queer.” The network goes to break. 

The threat and the slur are, naturally, what is remembered about the exchange, but what led up to it is also interesting for what it tells us about American intellectual discourse. Vidal is first posed a ludicrous, loaded question by the ABC News moderator: prove to me that the Vietnam protesters aren’t like Nazi sympathizers. (Shades of Glenn Beck’s infamous question to Keith Ellison: “Prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”) Vidal attempts a thoughtful reply. He attempts to say, in essence: you have to understand what the actual underlying issues here are. The Vietcong are fighting for an independent unified Vietnam, not an ideology of genocidal racist mass extermination. Many around the world recognize that their underlying claim is a legitimate one and the U.S. occupation is wrong. Perhaps that idea seems novel or ridiculous in the U.S.A., but surely the point of democracy… At which point William F. Buckley, considered one of the greatest of Conservative Intellectuals, interjects the following thoughtful analysis: “Some people were pro-Nazi.” The comment is asinine and non-responsive, but it does succeed in distracting from the issue. 

The exchange, of course, devolves, and Vidal is dragged into the mud, where he tells Buckley to kindly shut up, Buckley declines to shut up and begins babbling about how we were right to ostracize Nazi sympathizers, Vidal says there is only one Nazi in the room he can think of, and then, as Vidal later put it “in full view of ten million people, the little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions of others, to get a good look at.” Which they did; the remark followed Buckley for the rest of his life.

But even before he snapped, Buckley was showing us his true self. The Vietnam War, remember, was an abominable crime against humanity. The United States dropped more bombs there than all of the bombs dropped by every country in World War II. Millions of Vietnamese died. When Vidal tried to raise the possibility that perhaps the Vietnamese resistance to the United States had a point, Buckley’s “counterargument” was: and there were Nazi sympathizers, too. So much for the great conservative intellect. 

Buckley is long since dead, but since he was perhaps the most prominent American right-wing “thinker” of the 20th century (Reagan, of course, was the most prominent non-thinker) and is often credited with “launching the modern conservative movement,” he is worth taking a look at, because his 50-year career shows us well how the most aggressive ignorance can successfully dress itself up as Serious Thought. Buckley created a template for conservative intellectualism that is still used today: be glib, confident, and a good debater,  throw in a dash of wit and some references to the Classics. Do it all with a self-satisfied smile, and the validity or invalidity of your underlying arguments will cease to be a matter of serious discussion. Ben Shapiro, of course, is a kind of Buckley tribute act. The arguments he makes are often nonsensical from a strictly logical point of view, but this does not matter to the success of his project. It is the “theater of intellectualism,” to use the phrase of my colleague Aisling McCrea.

Buckley is sometimes looked back to nostalgically as an exemplar of the Age Of Civility in political discourse. (You know, back when before people weren’t just tossing slurs around and threatening to hit each other.) On the 1,500 episodes of his show Firing Line (1966-1999) he regularly debated those from the “other side,” even radicals like Huey Newton and Noam Chomsky. When Buckley died, even ideological opponents praised him as a man of “basic decency,” a “good man” who would have deplored the “vulgarity” of 21st century conservatism and showed a “capacity to change, adapt, and learn.” But it is worth remembering what the substance was beneath the style. 

Buckley’s gentility and civility existed atop deeply abhorrent values. National Review began its life explicitly defending segregation and McCarthyism. In an infamous 1957 editorial in the magazine, Buckley wrote that white Southerners had an inherent right to deprive Black people of the vote, because Black people were uncivilized and thus not fit for democracy: 

The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

    Now, if you know anything about the South in the 1950s, you know that Buckley is speaking here in delicate and deliberately misleading euphemisms. When he says “if the majority wills what is socially atavistic,” he means “if the majority believes that legal segregation of races should be ended and that Black people should be treated as equal citizens.” When he says “such measures necessary to prevail” and affirms that these are anti-democratic measures, he is necessarily talking about the use of racial terrorism, which is what was “necessary” to keep Black people from exercising their rights and attain their compliance. Emmett Till had been beaten to death two years before Buckley wrote his editorial. Buckley knew about that, and while he always insisted he lamented and deplored violence, he was emphatic: White people must prevail by “whatever measures” on “any issue on which their is corporate disagreement between Negro and White.” He says the “cultural superiority of White over Negro” is a fact that “cannot be hidden” and “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” He says that “limitations upon the vote” are not exclusively the “recommendations of tyrants or oligarchists (was Jefferson either?)” but are necessary prior to “cultural equality.” Today it looks rather hilarious to cite Thomas Jefferson as an authority how to achieve equality, but we should note the chilling implications of Buckley’s editorial. Southerners had, since the end of Reconstruction, murdered those who challenged white supremacy. Buckley does not go into detail about what he means by “whatever measures,” but there is no way to separate this from the violence with which segregation was enforced. Buckley was egging on those who were determined to enforce segregation, and indeed they would go on to lynch a number of civil rights workers, using exactly the justifications that Buckley provided.

    Buckley’s defenders cite his ability to “grow” and “change.” He eventually abandoned his belief in outright segregationism and stopped encouraging Southerners to resist integration by any means necessary. But, like Strom Thurmond, Buckley only evolved as his position became politically unacceptable thanks to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Like many conservatives, as soon as 1950s racism became unacceptable, he “grew” into 1960s racism, which talked of “law and order” and deplored the violence of inner city Blacks. After Bloody Sunday in 1965, when the police of Selma, Alabama had beaten civil rights protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (giving John Lewis a fractured skull), Buckley criticized the “excesses” but wondered why the excesses of the protesters weren’t being criticized: “…but were ever the excesses criticized of those who provoked them beyond the endurance that we tend think of as human?”

    Buckley’s 1965 campaign for Mayor of New York explicitly made defense of the police and resentment of the poor his core issues. On the subject of cops, Buckley vowed that “under no circumstances must the police be encumbered by such political irons as civilian review boards.” He demanded “a much larger police force, enjoined to lust after the apprehension of criminals.” And “resentment of the poor” may sound extreme, but I don’t think the point is even debatable. In speeches Buckley explicitly encouraged voters to be bitter about having to pay for public school for the destitute: 

There are 500,000 people on relief in New York today… what do they contribute materially to New York? It costs a minimum of $700 to furnish public school education for a child in New York. It costs about $500 per year per person for those on relief; and that much again for public housing. What is the residual benefit to New Yorkers of the sacrifices they endure in order to attract to this city men, women, and children who, in this city—as distinguished from elsewhere—are unemployable, and become structural welfarists?… [H]aving got their vote, the politicians let them institutionalize themselves as social derelicts, at liberty to breed children who, suffering from inherited disadvantages, alternatively seek surcease in hyperstimulation—in crime and narcotics—and in indolence—as school dropouts or as poolhall conscientious objectors to work…

    The speech could have been written for Ebeneezer Scrooge himself, save for the trademark ostentatious display of learning (“surcease in hyperstimulation”).

    Buckley had an intense distaste for James Baldwin, whom he debated at Cambridge University in 1965, commenting that “the moment is long overdue for someone who speaks authentically for the Negroes to tell Mr. Baldwin that his morose nihilism is a greater threat by far to prospects for the Negroes in America than anything that George Wallace ever said or did.” “How long,” Buckley asked, “…before the Baldwins will be ghettoized in the corners of fanaticism where they belong?”

    He was none too fond of Martin Luther King, either, who was “more sensitive, and so more bitter, than the average Southern Negro, and hence unqualified as a litmus of the Southern Negro’s discontent.” Buckley said as late as 1967 that he was “convinced that Martin Luther King belongs behind bars along with everyone else who conspires to break the law.” “Repression,” he said, “is an unpleasant instrument, but it is absolutely necessary for civilizations that believe in order and human rights.” After King’s assassination, Buckley appeared to speculate that it may have been done by “leftists,” reasoning that it would not be in the Ku Klux Klan’s interest to arouse sympathy for King. (He had similarly pondered of the 16th St Baptist Church bombing “whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro.”) Shortly after King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King was in talks with the Nixon administration about establishing a memorial to her late husband. When the administration proved indifferent, she chalked it up to racism. Buckley was incensed and chided Ms. King in his column: 

What to do posthumously about Martin Luther King is becoming a Cause…Mrs. Martin Luther King, who clearly learned from her husband the uses of the press, is omnipresent; saying, some useful things, saying, other times, most unfortunate things. But she has now said she has abandoned the negotiations, on the grounds that has detected an “indifferent attitude” toward black and poor people… [One] can imagine what Mr. Nixon and his lieutenants and the leaders of Congress are saying privately about Mrs. King’s intemperance, it isn’t good. The notion that “racist attitudes” motivate Nixon is paradoxically correct. Because Mr. Nixon would never have paused to negotiate with Mrs. King concerning a national memorial to her husband except for the fact that Dr. King was a Negro… If he had been white, the suggestion of raising a monument to him would have been presumptively ridiculous, not because a white man carrying the message of Dr. King on into martyrdom would be less than an object of national honor, but because there is a long line of men who are deemed to have been national benefactors who have not yet been memorialized in concrete, and some of them have been dead (Andrew Jackson, say) for more than 100 Years…. [King] was the spokesman for a point of view on citizenship which in the opinion of some—e.g., me—is mortal to civil society… Above all, Mrs. King should be counseled to stop the racist talk. Because more of that, and she will antagonize those whom there is no purpose in antagonizing. It is time to mute the memory of one Martin Luther King, the advocate of civil disbedience who once likened America’s foreign policy to Nazi Germany’s and stress instead the qualities that made him admirable—his courage, his moral strength, his great eloquence. That is not accomplished by attributing racism to the Nixon administration. 

    “If Martin Luther King had been white,” there would be no memorial to him, reasoned Buckley, therefore a memorial to him is racist. After all Andrew Jackson didn’t get any monuments. (In fact he got a slew, I live a block away from one of them.) Buckley shows in this passage that he simply did not understand the civil rights movement or King. King’s “eloquence” and even his “courage” Buckley could praise, but the actual issues at stake confused him, and he thought that King’s “view of citizenship” was “mortal to civil society.” He could not seem to understand why King was so incensed by U.S. foreign policy or so ardent in his insistence on achieving racial equality sooner rather than later. 

    In fact, you will learn a great deal about Buckley by reading the text of a speech he gave shortly after King’s death. It is, supposedly, a reflection on King, but have a look through it (I do not ask you to read it all) and see if you find it appropriate for the occasion: 

William Butler Yeats, the Hollandaise Sauce at Maxim’s, Conrad on the sea, the relationship of columnist and editor, mutatis mutandis, the journalistic tendency to think ill of America, the discomposure of the saints: it is chock-full of signals that Buckley is well-read and well-off, but what it is about? Certainly not Martin Luther King, about whom he has virtually nothing to say. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to reassure Americans that they should not feel guilty over King’s death, calling any white person who says it makes them feel shame and loathing of their own race “genocidal.” The lesson Buckley draws—again, mere days after King’s killing—is that America should give itself a big pat on the back for publicly grieving King to begin with, and we should use the moment to “profess our continuing faith in this country.” 

    One might be tempted to excuse all the rambling about editors and columnists by the fact that this was an address to a society of columnists. But, again, supposedly these are reflections on the assassination of Martin Luther King. Does Buckley talk at all about the role of columnists during the civil rights movement? (Including perhaps trying to make amends for his own column encouraging segregationists to keep up the fight.) Does he even touch on Martin Luther King’s values, except to use them to chastise anyone who feels his death indicts the country as a whole? Does he say a word about civil rights or racism? I present this speech to you as a clear exhibit of eloquent idiocy, although even “eloquent” is high praise for a speech that doesn’t even touch on its ostensible subject until four pages in. The death of King was one of the most significant events of Buckley’s lifetime, and what did the Greatest Of 20th Century Conservative Intellectuals have to say about the matter? Nothing of any substance whatsoever, except “I love America,” which tells you all you need to know about the depth of moral seriousness to be found on the right. 

    In fact, I have been generous to Buckley, by showing you only the lengthy speech he gave “about” King after he had had some time to reflect. Buckley’s first reaction, in a column penned just a few days after the assassination, was to suggest that King might partly be to blame for his own assassination:

Dr. King’s flouting of the law does not justify  the flouting by others of the law, but it is a terrifying thought that, most likely, the cretin who leveled the rifle at the head of Martin Luther King, may have absorbed the talk, so freely available, about the supremacy of the individual conscience, such talk as Martin Luther King, God rest his troubled soul, had so widely, and so indiscriminately, engaged in. 

    It is not worth going through every issue on which William F. Buckley had a horrible opinion, since it was most of them. Chris Orlet documents at length his public support for the Pinochet regime and the Apartheid government in South Africa, and some of his more offensive remarks on the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis. On the latter, Buckley proposed in a 1986 New York Times op-ed that every person with AIDS should be forcibly tattooed on the forearm and the buttocks. He abandoned the proposal under protest, suggesting that people were being unreasonable by complaining, but then revived it in 2005, writing that he had been “treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration.”

On Vietnam, Buckley pondered why the United States, which was already responsible for millions of deaths, didn’t go further and use nuclear weapons. 

[W]are not permitted to talk about the use of tactical nuclear weapons… The time to introduce the use of tactical nuclear arms was a long time ago.. The use of limited atomic bombs for purely military operations is many times easier to defend on the morality scale than one slit throat of a civilian for terrorism’s sake; and yet, incredibly, the Vietcong seem to win all the propaganda victories, and the moralizers’ inveighing is against us, not against them. 

After the My Lai massacre happened, Buckley produced a column wondering how it could possibly be that good American boys had done such a thing. He considered, but discounted, the possibility that the indiscriminate killing inherent in the Vietnam War itself had something to do with it. Instead he—incredibly—blamed egalitarianism and Berkeley: 

The twenty-year-old who, under the press of circumstances, can easily murder, after only a few months in uniform, is most likely a twenty-year-old whose ethical equilibrium was unbalanced well before he came to Vietnam. Unbalanced by a society which in quite other contexts we all have been criticizing over the years. A society deprived of the strength of religious sanctions, a society hugely devoted to hedonism, to permissive egalitarianism, to irresponsibility, to an indifference to authority and the law. Such a society as-dare we say it?—produced the kids who are attracted to the iconoclast of the day. I would contend that a better explanation for what happened, according to this analysis, is—not Vietnam but, to reach for a symbol—Berkeley. 

In fact, as I have written about at length before, Vietnam draftees were specifically encouraged to view the Vietnamese as subhuman “g**ks” whose lives did not matter. It was exactly the opposite of egalitarianism, which stresses that no person is more important than any other. The United States military viewed its own soldiers as being vastly more valuable than the peasants of rural Vietnam, and therefore reasoned that it was justified to kill many Vietnamese civilians if it saved the life of one American soldier. 

There is nothing “intellectual” about these opinions of Buckley’s. He doesn’t provide any evidence to support his claim that Berkeley led to My Lai. “Intellectuals” are supposed to think through their arguments, but his opinions on race and Vietnam showed that he was incapable of understanding the other side’s argument or thinking through the issues in a serious way. 

Buckley was considered an intellectual in part because he was erudite, and he was considered erudite in part because he used big words, had gone to Yale, and was quick with a retort. But he was clearly a pundit rather than a political philosopher. Look, for instance, at how he wrote about the Republican Party’s failure to embrace a radical “free market” agenda: 

To begin with, I see the issue primarily as one of freedom or non-freedom. To the extent that a fraction of the individual’s time, which we will for convenience equate with his earnings, is a priori mortgaged to the government and against his will, then he is to that same extent not free. Since there is no money except the individual’s money, and since his money represents his labor or his savings or the product of his tools, the assessment of that money by the State represents a direct levy on that individual’s freedom. If it is true, as the liberals would have it, that the Republican Party could not evoke any support for a program that calls for extracting from the individual only that money necessary to carry on the minimum functions of government loosely, defense, courts, and conservation, then it must follow that the American people no longer value maximum individual freedom. 

This looks like “logic” (“a priori,” “it must follow”) but it’s not actually any more intellectually serious than the content of a screed by Sean Hannity or Ben Shapiro. Buckley argues that by necessity, anyone who does not believe that the government should be shrunk to the minimum size possible does not believe in maximizing freedom, because taxes are a “levy on freedom.” This an extremely simple and satisfying way to look at freedom, until we consider the implications, namely that a person who is working 80 hours a week at backbreaking work, with no free time, but who earns so little that they pay no taxes, is “free,” while a billionaire who pays a fraction of their income in taxes is having their freedom encroached upon. The libertarian capitalist vision of freedom simply doesn’t work in practice, because it means that situations that look extremely “un-free” are defined as free, while people who can do virtually anything they want are not free. (For more, see Rob Larson’s excellent Capitalism v. Freedom.) Buckley, like other pundits, simply acts as if the serious and compelling criticisms of his position do not exist.

 It is fair to say that Buckley was a TV intellectual rather than a writer, though he wrote prolifically. The books have mostly dated bady and are little-read today. God and Man at Yale, written when he was 26, made his name, and invented the whole “colleges are being ruined by relativists” genre. (Variations on the same book have been rewritten over and over again for decades: Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind). All accepted the basic picture of the university forged by Buckley, which is that it is a place where leftist professors are waging a war on Traditional Values. But Buckley’s book is a long analysis of Yale specifically in the late 1940s and early 50s, scrupulously parsing the public writing of its professors, analyzing columns in the Yale Daily News and Yale Alumni magazine, looking at the bylaws of the Yale Corporation, to show that the university has become stuffed with “those who seek to subvert religion and individualism.” Buckley’s evidence for this is sometimes comical. In attempting to prove that the university has been taken over by “collectivists,” he cites the syllabus of a lecture course in American Studies: 

Lectures and readings on religious, social, political, and constitutional thought. Folk literatures and music of the frontier and the importance of American thought to the rise of science are considered. 

Innocuous, you might think. But no: Buckley says that the description is “accurate” in conveying the course contents “but in no way does it attempt to persuade the student to line up on one side or the other of the collectivist issue.” Instead of folk literatures and music of the frontier, the professor should have been instructing on the virtues of free-market capitalism. Buckley also combs through the scholarship of each member of the Economics Department to prove that each is a Keynesian. Today, the whole thing looks tiresome and paranoid. 

Buckley mastered the performance of knowledge. He released a book of all the words he knew that other people didn’t, and said things like “digression is your synonym for confutation.” Even directions to his Connecticut home instructed visitors to  “turn left on debouching from I-95.” (A love of using obscure words as a sign of superior knowledge survives in intellectual conservatism to this day; witness Dinesh D’Souza calling Obama a “faineant.”) But Buckley’s “erudition,” dropping Latinate phrases and words most people would need to look up, did not actually make him a good writer or speaker, which is one reason that no Buckley book or essay has attained classic status. (His potboiler novels about a Yalie-turned-CIA man called Blackford Oakes are apparently quite good, though.) Witness a snippet of the Buckley style: 

“The non-combativeness of Bush in terms of the matter of congressional extravagance is an aspect of acquiescence of a political figure utterly engrossed in the Iraq business. Yes, the kind of consolidation of a thoughtful conservatism that might have happened if he’d lost isn’t going to happen on account of his winning.”

That first means: Bush is so engrossed in the Iraq business that he has acquiesced to extravagant congressional acts he should have combated. I don’t think anyone can justify his use of “in terms of the matter of.” But the Buckley rule of writing and speaking is “never use a short word when a long one can be found.” It is a very easy way to remind people you went to college.


The best thing Buckley put out was his long-running television show Firing Line, which hosted some of the most interesting conversations of its time. Buckley was willing to have on leftists, and guests included such figures as Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Jesse Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Saul Alinsky, and Norman Thomas. Now, it is often said that Buckley’s willingness to engage with the other side was “to his credit,” but that may only be partly true. In the 1960s, the contemporary conservative movement had only just been born, and any lively discussion of the issues of the time—from racial justice to Vietnam—required engaging with radicals, because radicals were ascendant. From the mid-70s to the 90s, as his movement grew, Buckley began talking more and more to other conservatives, and Heather Hendershot concedes in her admiring book on Firing Line that the show gradually “became less compelling.” Where once one saw Buckley tangling with the chairman of the Black Panther Party, one would instead see him “debat[ing] right-wing economist Milton Friedman on how to best make American youngsters feel a stronger sense of gratitude toward their country.” Still, the Firing Line archives are fascinating to dip into, and Buckley did give leftists a chance to speak at length on television, something even MSNBC won’t do. He even let them get some good lines in. Witness this exchange between Buckley and Black socialist Paul Boutelle

BUCKLEY:

Put it this way, Mr. Boutelle. I’m sure if I ran for office in Mississippi I’d have more Negroes voting for me than for you. How many votes did you get last time you ran?

BOUTELLE:

I’m sure of one thing, if you went down to Mississippi and told black people they were free, you would be running, and it wouldn’t be for office.


We should not mistake Firing Line for serious discourse, though. Buckley was putting on a show, and he was not so much concerned with getting to the root of an issue as with having a verbal tennis match. A serious thinker could dispose of him rather quickly, as Noam Chomsky proved in a 1969 appearance. The exchange is worth watching in its entirety, although it is frustrating. Here is a representative excerpt, in which Buckley says that the U.S.’s motives for invading Vietnam were “disinterested” and Chomsky points out that every single aggressor convinces themselves that they have noble motives:

WFB:

And what brought us to South Vietnam in the first instance, in my judgment was clearly an uninterested, or I should say disinterested concern for the stability and possibilities of a region of the world…

NC:

What period do you feel that we had this disinterested relationship with Vietnam?

WFB:

Well right now!

NC:

No, at what period did we have it – did it begin, let’s say? 1951 for example, when the State Department Bulletin points out that we must help the French re-conquer their former colony and we must eradicate all Vietnamese resistance down to its last roots in order to re-establish the French in power – was that disinterested…

WFB:

Well, I personally wish—to increase my vulnerability—I wish we had helped the French.

NC:

We did. We supported…

WFB:

Well not sufficiently, not sufficiently. There’s no point in helping somebody insufficiently…

NC:

But it was hardly disinterested when we attempted, you know, with tremendous support in fact to reinstate French imperialism in South Vietnam.

WFB:

It was disinterested in this sense, and I think this is an important distinction which you do touch on in your book—it’s a disinterested act if my attempt to help, or your attempt to help a particular nation is in order to spare you the possibility of a great ordeal in the future, which will harm you, your family, your children…

NC:

In that sense, Nazi Germany was also disinterested. Because after all, Nazi Germany was conquering Eastern Europe only in order to advance the values of Christian spiritual civilisation, and to restore the Slavs to their rightful home and so on and so forth…

WFB:

Look, I follow you, I follow you. But if you want me to pursue that digression I will, but let’s suspend it for a moment. I’m distinguishing that kind of disinterestedness with the kind…

NC:

But that’s not a kind of disinterestedness. You see, that’s something which includes as a special case every case of military aggression and colonialism in history. It’s all disinterested in your sense.

WFB:

Well, alright, let me simply rest my case by saying that there is an observable distinction by intelligent men between a country that reaches out and interferes with the affairs of another country because it has reason to believe that a failure to do so will result in universal misery, and that country which reaches out and interferes with another country because it wants to establish Coca-Cola plants there, and Chase National Banks, and whatever, and exploit it. Now, that is an observable…

NC:

It is a conceptual… well, let’s distinguish between a conceptual distinction and a factual distinction…

WFB:

OK. I’m prepared to do that…

NC:

Alright. It is a conceptual distinction, but in actual fact the history of colonialism shows that these two motivations coincide. That is, practically every – I mean, there are exceptions, you know, probably the Belgians in the Congo are an exception – but by and large, the major imperialist ventures have been in the economic, in the material interest – or in the perceived material interests of…

WFB:

Yeah, I’m not interested in the mathematics of… I’m interested…

NC:

Let me finish…

WFB:

You have already conceded that it is not merely a conceptual difference…

NC:

I say it is a conceptual difference…

WFB:

…because you say that there are exceptions…

NC:

There are a few exceptions…

WFB:

Alright – OK, OK, well, let’s talk about the exceptions then.

NC:

Well no, but the exceptions are at the difference… no, wait a minute. The exceptions – I mentioned for example the Belgians in the Congo. There, they didn’t even pretend to have a civilising mission. There, it was pure material self-interest. These are the exceptions. There are, as far as I know, no exceptions on the other side. I mean, maybe I’ve left out a case of history, but as I see the history of colonialism, the great mass of cases are cases where a powerful country was working in its perceived material self-interest, and was covering what it was doing, to itself and to the world, with very pleasant phrases about preserving Christian values, or helping the poor benighted natives, or one thing or another. 

Chomsky ensnares Buckley in a delightful trap here. Buckley insists that invasions can be for disinterested reasons, purely because one country cares about the well-being of another country. Chomsky replies that this never, in fact, happens, that while we can imagine it happening conceptually, as a matter of historical fact, what happens is that the invading power covers its self-interest with rationalizations and pleasant phrases, though Chomsky concedes that there are one or two exceptions. Buckley, excited, thinks he’s found an opportunity to set aside all the cases of self-interest covered with pleasant phrases, and instead focus on the exceptions. But Chomsky informs him that the exceptions are just cases where they don’t even bother to use the pleasant phrases or pretend that their conquest is in the natives’ self-interest, such as the Belgians in the Congo.

Obviously, I take immense pleasure in watching Noam Chomsky thrash Buckley on his own television show. (I also enjoy the withering comment Chomsky gave after Buckley’s death.  Asked what he thought of Buckley, Chomsky said that he didn’t really think of him at all: “He was considered—not by me—to be witty, articulate, knowledgeable, and so on… [He was] much respected—again, not by me, but I’m giving the general impression.”) But I think it’s also quite clear that one learns very little about the Vietnam War from this exasperating exchange, since Buckley is more interested in litigating the conceptual question of disinterestedness than understanding the grievances were fueling Vietnamese resistance to American military action. Trained in the Yale Political Union, Buckley enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate but had no sense of the underlying human stakes to politics. It was all tremendous fun, as one can see in his two books of diaries about his life as a magazine editor and television host, Cruising Speed and Overdrive, which portray Buckley running from meal to meal and speech to speech, a happy warrior for the conservative cause but completely morally shallow.


Buckley would have been horrified by Donald Trump, and would have been one of the loudest voices among the “Never Trump” Republicans. I believe we can say this for certain, because Buckley was devoted above all to making conservatism respectable. At the time he came on the scene in the 50s, there was still a post-Roosevelt consensus that the job of the government was to sort out problems, and the “drown it in the bathtub” types were considered cranks. “When William F. Buckley burst onto the national scene in 1955, conservatism was a dead letter in American politics,” concluded NPR. There is a strong argument made that through his columns, speeches, and television appearances, he was the person most responsible for changing this. Biographer Alvin Felzenberg concluded that “the role Buckley played in advancing [Ronald] Reagan’s career… cannot be overstated.” He was Reagan’s “most trusted adviser outside his official family.” Buckley is also credited with “producing the mix of ideas we recognize today as conservatism: free-market capitalism, support for American military actions, libertarianism and social conservatism.” He has been called “the major conservative public intellectual of the postwar years,” and that is probably right. 

    But if Buckley is the major conservative intellectual, we can judge conservative intellectualism by him. The verdict is not a favorable one. Buckley was prejudiced and ignorant, and passed off monstrous ideas such as nuking the Vietnamese and tattooing AIDS sufferers as Thoughtful Discourse. He was a racist, and only became less racist as racism became unacceptable. But he did not stop issuing grotesque opinions even into this century, and in 2005 was defending President Bush’s record on Katrina, suggesting that if residents had wanted protection they shouldn’t have lived in the city. ( “The critics have not yet charged that movement away from New Orleans was prohibited by George W. Bush.”) 

Buckley is seen as a representative of a time when people had serious and thoughtful conversations about politics on television. Hendershot’s Firing Line book contrasts the show with The McLaughlin Group, which came after it, with its “barking, squawking, ideologically split pundits.” “Even if you are opposed to [the conservative] movement, it is right to praise [Buckley] for his thoughtful televisual interactions with liberals,” says Hendershot. Indeed, Firing Line was a more intellectually nourishing program than anything on Fox, and the liberals got a chance to talk. But all we can really say for Buckley is that he was better than what came after him. 

But then again, was he? He has been praised for “polic[ing] the boundaries of conservatism, casting out extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites, and racists,” and Feltzenberg says he wishes the Republican Party had a “Buckley figure to purge these ‘kooks.’” What Buckley actually did, though, was cover the same extremist opinions with the thinnest patina of intellectual seriousness, thereby making them less obviously “kooky.” Whether in his support for McCarthy, the Vietnam invasion, the segregated South, the police who beat the protesters at Selma, or his belief that the poor were parasites and the universities were crawling with secularist collectivists—all Buckley added to the politics of the John Birch Society was a few witty retorts and the phrase mutatis mutandis. It is very dangerous to think that this is a “better” conservatism, because it wasn’t. It was a less honest conservatism, because Buckley would only let the slurs come out if you really got him riled up. But there was no moderation in policy, only in tone. We need to beware of this, especially now, because we can see that there are those who wish Donald Trump would disappear in favor of a more genteel, Buckleyesque right wing. This is just a more insidious right wing, however, and nostalgia for Buckley, Bush, and Reagan is deeply misplaced. 

William F. Buckley bequeathed the right the ability to disguise cheap, fallacious talking points as reasonable arguments. He is best remembered as the creator of contemporary pseudo-intellectualism. His model is not one we should wish to see revived. 

More In: Editor’s Notes

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A more punctual issue than usual! But no less full of surprises and delights.

The Latest From Current Affairs