In February 1966, William F. Buckley Jr. sent out his annual fundraising letter to National Review’s subscribers. A few weeks later, he got a pointed response.
“Dear Bill . . . Your letter was the best letter I ever read by an editor asking for funds,” Norman Mailer wrote. As a radical on the Left who at the time was protesting the Vietnam War and resisting Goldwater-style conservatism, Mailer didn’t think National Review was all that great any more; he wrote, “it’s not so good as it ought to be.” But Mailer sent a check anyway. Why? “As a personal mark of respect for you,” he told Buckley. “Besides,” he added, giving depth to his letter, “I have the hope that some day our minds will meet somewhere between your real and essential conservatism (as opposed to your outrageous . . . right-wingerism . . . ). [Y]es, I still see some future rapprochement between your love of fine trees and mine, for that, old buddy, is where some existential notions (like mine) touch the conservative base.”
Buckley chuckled that Mailer would remind him of their common ground. Then he cashed the check.
Throughout his long career in public life, Bill Buckley was famously close to several thinkers on the Left, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Murray Kempton, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But Buckley’s friendship with Mailer was different. For one thing, more than anyone else, Mailer was famous for being the enfant terrible of the Left. He had written salacious novels defending socialism and had gone out of his way to reject traditional moral values. He had hosted drug-addled parties and had even stabbed his wife with a penknife in a drunken rage in 1960, prompting National Review to call him a “moral pervert.” By the early 1960s, while still in his 30s, he was already on his third marriage, ultimately ending up having had six wives and countless lovers.
Despite all this, Buckley defended him throughout. Once their friendship began, after a raucous 1962 debate at a huge theater in Chicago, Buckley would invite the Mailers to his home in Stamford, Conn., to go sailing. When Buckley was having difficulties with his writing, he confided in Mailer. On numerous occasions, Buckley suggested Mailer as a debating opponent, including for the series of debates during the 1968 conventions. ABC instead chose Gore Vidal, leading to the fateful night when Buckley made headlines for calling Vidal a “queer” on national television (after Vidal had called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi”). Buckley rued that ABC hadn’t chosen someone more serious, someone like Norman Mailer.
What did Buckley see in Mailer?
He was actually asked that question several times.
When in 1965 people scoffed that Buckley had allowed Joan Didion’s gushing review of Mailer’s novel An American Dream to appear in the pages of National Review (she had called it an almost “perfect novel,” comparing Mailer to F. Scott Fitzgerald), Buckley took to his syndicated column to explain his appreciation of the man.
Buckley was sure that ‘there is hope in Norman Mailer’s turbulent motions,’ and that ‘the Quest to Explain Norman Mailer is itself worthwhile.’
“Mailer is interesting in two respects,” Buckley explained. “The first . . . is that he makes the most beautiful metaphors in the business,” paying Mailer a compliment he would repeat numerous times throughout their 40-plus years of friendship. “The second reason why he is interesting,” wrote Buckley, “is that to many who read him hungrily (and perhaps too seriously) he represents present-day America. He expresses their feelings that America today is shivering in desolation and hopelessness, is looking for her identity after a period of self-alienation marked by a couple of world wars, a depression, and a cyclonic advance through technology and automation.” Mailer, in short, was asking all the right questions. And even though Buckley himself did “not enjoy spelunking in human depravity, nor do I wish my machine around to tape-record the emunctory noises of psychic or physical human excesses,” he was still sure that “there is hope in Norman Mailer’s turbulent motions,” and that “the Quest to Explain Norman Mailer is itself worthwhile.”
Mailer read the column and fired back: “What the hell does emunctory mean?” But it was clear Buckley was taking up his cudgel to make sure even conservatives paid attention to Norman Mailer.
The defenses continued. When Mailer wrote Armies of the Night, his first-person account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, in which tens of thousands marched to protest the war in Vietnam, the book swept nearly all the awards, including a National Book Award and a Pulitzer. But Buckley nonetheless invited Mailer on Firing Line to be sure Mailer’s central points about America were understood by conservatives. “I think everyone should read [it],” Buckley said in his introduction.
Midway through the interview, Buckley asked Mailer the critical question the Right had for the Left in the late 1960s: “Aren’t you, in one sense, an enemy of the country?” Wasn’t everyone who was protesting our actions at home and abroad an enemy of America?
Mailer was quick to answer: “No, sir, not yet. . . . I mean, I still believe that this country is a marvelous country and that one fights within this country. If one’s completely wiped off the board — in other words, if you have no way to fight for your ideas any longer in this country — then you have to decide one of two things, which is either, one, your ideas [are] wrong, or, two, the country is wrong.” By marching on the Pentagon, he was simply using his right as an American to make an argument about the direction he felt the country should go. He, for one, was still willing to fight for what he saw as the virtuous heart that was central to the American project.
Buckley, satisfied with the answer, then asked Mailer if the Russians would “be much less frightened by a Mailer administration than, say, a Buckley administration.”
Mailer could only laugh: “I love the way we’re treating each other as world leaders. You see I’m not the only narcissist in the house.”
Buckley returned the laugh.
Mailer would go on to appear on Firing Line two more times.
In 1970, in the course of a long interview Buckley did with Playboy, he was asked: “To whom do you personally feel inferior?”
Buckley waffled around a bit, saying, “Millions of people — or hundreds of thousands of people.”
But Playboy pressed the issue: “Norman Mailer?” the interviewer asked.
Buckley answered: “[He’s] much more talented than I am.” But then he checked himself: “Now, there are certain things in which I am Mailer’s manifest superior. Politically he’s an idiot. And he’s botched his life and the lives of a lot more people than I’ve botched, I hope.”
“On the other hand,” Buckley concluded, “he’s a genius and I’m not.”
And there, in that answer, lies what Buckley saw in Mailer.
Buckley recognized in his friend a seriousness that risked being overrun by the cult of personality, but a seriousness nonetheless. Buckley appreciated the fact that Mailer was willing to get his hands dirty in order to improve the lot of the nation. He saw not merely self-aggrandizement (although certainly there was some of that), but also a genuine concern for the health of the nation. In a way, Buckley saw in Mailer a mirror image of himself. Both began as the enfants terribles of their respective politics. Both sought creative answers to the deepest questions of their time. Both sought to increase individual freedoms in an era when American culture seemed overbearing. Both ran for mayor of New York City (Buckley in 1965, Mailer in 1969). It’s no surprise that they shared so much, and it’s no surprise that they respected each other as citizen intellectuals trying to re-enliven American life.
When Mailer died, in late 2007, Buckley, himself sick and dying (he would succumb less than four months later), raised himself up to write an obituary of his old friend. It was a touching piece, filled with memories, mostly of the 1960s. There was the perpetual line about Mailer writing “the most beautiful metaphors in the language.” And then, at the end, there was the hope that people would not remember Norman Mailer solely for his difficult personality, but would instead bother to look at “the phenomenon of Norman Mailer from the appropriate perspective” and appreciate his efforts to improve the lot of the entire country.