Buckley/Vidal – Steel Cage Match

With tonight’s episode presuming martyrdom status for the ’68 Democratic Convention protesters, the increasingly funny, histrionic-laden, & hagiography-addled Mad Men, a show which jumped the shark 2 seasons ago, reminded me of the classic steel cage match between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, sparring while guests on an ABC news program back in 1968. (Harry Kloman of the University of Pittsburgh has more extended clips and information here).

During the DNC convention in August of 1968, ABC’s Howard K. Smith had both Buckley and Vidal as guests. The DNC convention that year was a violent one, with anti-war protesters not only en-massed outside the convention center, but on at least one occasion trying to forcibly enter the convention center itself. The subject of their debate was the U.S. Constitution’s right to assembly, subsequent court interpretations of this right, and the context of the ’68 Convention.

Buckley and Vidal start off jousting fairly well until Vidal, being a little prick, initiates the fireworks by calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi”. Buckley responds in one of the greatest impromptu lines ever, one I’ll probably go to my grave remembering:

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


Buckley, behind his cringeworthy, West-CT-meets-Britain accent, is one of the most important figures in modern conservatism. When he founded National Review in 1955 it was virtually the only forum available for intelligent, conservative ideas. As many Eastern European scholars immigrated to the United States, after seeing first hand the wonders of Stalin’s utopia, they began writing for NR trying to warn U.S. scholars not to romanticize the Soviet Union, which the latter were doing in spades. Neoconservatism (former Leftists who become conservatives) was born and the rest is history.

Gore Vidal, on the other hand, is someone I’ve had a hard time figuring out. Idea-wise, I think he’s a loon – a crotchedly old professor of the Michael Moore Institute – but I’ve found myself impressed with his historical breadth and erudition, as well as his skill at conveying controversial historical epochs into novelistic dialogue. Vidal engages with both political history and contemporary social issues vis-à-vis the novel, and while he’s a flaming leftie, he is an intellectual.

Some years ago, PBS’s American Masters series had an episode on Vidal that was very good. While he ultimately falls into the nihilist iconoclast trap (left holding a bag of nothing), Vidal is surprisingly unsparing in his de-mythologizing treatments of liberal heroes such as Lincoln and FDR. In his Lincoln: A Novel, for example, Vidal works to distance the biographical reality of Lincoln from the mythopoetic image of Lincoln as Saint, the latter imagery sustained by the poems of Carl Sandburg. Vidal emphasizes what may have been Lincoln’s overriding concern with respect to Abolition and preservation of the Union. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,” wrote Lincoln, “and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” (Lincoln’s Reply to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862). Vidal portrays Lincoln as a skilled manipulator of public opinion, a man who became, for an extended period of time, essentially a dictator (overriding the constitutionally-sound means by which the southern agrarian states voted toward secession, suspending habeas corpus, etc.)

In Empire: A Novel Vidal has similar takes on Teddy Roosevelt, seeing Roosevelt as having a symbiotic relationship with yellow journalism pioneer William Randolph Hearst (e.g., “Who Sunk the Maine?”, etc.). Vidal sees the 26th U.S. President as having been largely the ‘creation’ of Hearst’s media empire, while acknowledging Roosevelt’s strong disagreements with any such suggestion and insistence that inexorable historical truths dictate a President’s actions.

Vidal also disdains Herbert Hoover, whon Vidal claims desperately wanted to enter WWI despite the isolationist sentiment of the country. In Hollywood, he attributes Hoover as one of the first politicians to exploit the new medium of film and media imagery to his advantage. Hoover was trying to rally the public’s willingness to battle the “Huns” (e.g., Germans) and Hearst assembled powerful images of Hoover overseeing U.S. troops in spectacular formation displays. Throughout, Vidal marvels at the sense of self-importance which emanated from (and continues to) both Washington DC and Hollywood.

In The Golden Age: A Novel, Vidal provides something of an alternative-history wherein FDR is seen as a power-hungry individual consumed with becoming ‘President for Life’, a President who shut off Japan’s oil supply (while publicly ordering Japan to depart from a strategic colony) knowing this would precipitate war.

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