1968 and All That: An Update

by Jay Nordlinger

Recently, I had a column on conservatism versus crudity, basically. I said that the opposite of political correctness was not loutishness. And I spent a number of paragraphs on William F. Buckley Jr.

Let me republish them, in order to add something:

National Review’s founder . . . labored for decades to disassociate conservatism from crudity. Under his leadership, conservatism acquired something of a reputation for elegance, erudition, and panache. And a lot of people aspired to be like WFB.

Now, he was no violet. Far from it. He could be very aggressive, very sharp-elbowed. I often remind people that there was a reason he called his TV show “Firing Line.” Toward the end, yes, it got rather genteel. But, throughout his life, WFB could be as slashing as he was charming.

Always, he prized good manners. Sheer decency. On one episode of Firing Line, a right-wing type was rude to another person. WFB swatted him down like a slow, fat fly.

While swatting, Bill was cool. But one time, he lost his cool on television — lost it badly. That was in his famous showdown (1968) with Gore Vidal. His fans often brought up this incident to him, excitedly. I observed this several times. And nothing could make Bill change the subject faster.

He was deeply ashamed of that moment. He never repeated it. His fans, some of them, may have thought it a high point — but he regarded it as a low point.

After this column appeared, I heard from Neal B. Freeman, WFB’s onetime right hand. “Your posse may be interested in some local color,” he wrote. Posse! Neal continues,

The TV spat in question occurred during the 1968 Democratic convention. Things had become heated — or, as the network suits would describe it, “good television” — between Bill and Vidal when they mixed it up in Miami during the GOP convention a week or two earlier. Bill was so raw after Miami, in fact, that he tried to beg off from the Chicago gig. ABC wouldn’t let him out of the contract. Blowing off some steam, Bill then took one of his hell-for-leather sailing excursions off the coast of Florida. He fell and broke his collarbone.

I met Bill at the studio on the night in question. We were going to have dinner after the debate. As he walked on the set, Bill removed his sling and asked me to hold it for him. He didn’t want to be seen to be playing to “the sympathy vote.” So when late in the show Bill promised to “sock” Vidal in his “goddamn face,” it was not just an empty threat but a physical impossibility. Bill couldn’t lift his arm above his shoulder.

At dinner that night, Bill was mortified by what he had done. He was as down and demoralized as I had ever seen him, as low as he was the night his sister Maureen had died, which would otherwise have been known to Buckley family history as the night Barry Goldwater was nominated for president. Bill thought he had let the side down and he was inconsolable.

A feature film on the Buckley-Vidal debates was released a couple of years ago. Those few minutes of Buckley-Vidal ABC footage were, and probably still are, taken by the Left as an x-ray of the “real Buckley” and more broadly of the “real conservative” — profane, homophobic, violence-prone. As you note carefully, for WFB those few moments were utterly aberrational, an odd twitch in a long life conducted in exemplary civility.

Some good news: National Review has just published a collection of Neal B. Freeman, Skirmisheshere. As Rick Brookhiser says, Neal was “at the heart of it all,” and his voice is “intimate, wry, and clean as breeze.”

Perfect (both Rick and Neal). (And Buckley.)

P.S. I myself am more hot-headed than WFB ever dreamed of being — in his worst nightmares — and don’t know what I myself would have done with Vidal. Once the N-word starts flying — “Nazi” — almost anything can happen.

By the way, my favorite WFB line, re Vidal? Vidal had accused Bill of lying about him. Bill said, “Anyone who lies about Vidal is doing him a favor.”

Heh.

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