The Vidal Encounter: A Buckley Anomaly

Buckley and Vidal on the set.
Learning civility from WFB.

Sometimes we pay attention only when there’s a storm.

I feel that’s what’s going on as I see headline after headline commenting on the new documentary about the famous verbal sparring match on ABC between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. As the New York Times describes it, Best of Enemies seeks to mark that moment in August of 1968 as the beginning of a slide from civility into endless belligerence.

I submit that Buckley and Vidal didn’t start that slide. Instead, the tumult and violence of the Sixties fed our frustrations and our desire to turn politics into blood sport, as commentators have been calling that encounter. Additionally, as we’ve grown away from our moral roots — any sense of God as a bountiful Creator deserving of praise and gratitude and the best we have, which He has given — our incoherence about the meaning and purpose of life not only has fed incivility but also has launched a new regime of intolerance toward any form of religion that questions the libertine values of the sexual revolution, now mainstreamed and even mandated in some of our recent laws and rulings.

But further, when we pay attention only to storms, we miss the harvest of the everyday. I say this specifically in connection with Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review, the magazine I’ve worked for since a Clinton was president. When Bill died, on February 27, 2008, YouTube links to Buckley vs. Vidal were incessantly clicked. And that made me sad. Because focusing on that show misses a lot — indeed, it misses the point of who Buckley was and what he did in a career spanning more than 50 years. If your cocktail-party knowledge of the man extends only to the lightning of the Vidal encounter, you’ve missed the rain that fed his goodly harvest — in his books, in his magazine, in his public speaking, and on his weekly public-affairs show, Firing Line.

In the days surrounding his death, we at National Review were overwhelmed by calls, letters, and e-mails from people who wanted to testify to how important he was in their lives. Many had stories about the one time they met him; to each person who wrote or called us, he had been gracious, giving each his focused attention with great generosity.

In 1969, he was asked about Satan, and he said: “I think of him as the person we ought mostly to consider as being in charge of this world. I don’t know how better to understand Christ’s being taken to the mountain top and offered the kingdoms of this earth than to assume that it was Satan’s to offer. I do think of Satan as being an expression for worldliness. When we say that Satan roams through the world seeking the destruction of souls, I understand that to mean that the allure of the fleshpots of this world is so great as to constantly be attempting to engage our attention over against grander spiritual pursuits.” 

Reading this, and a column in the archives about an impending papal visit, I couldn’t help wondering what he might be writing these days about Pope Francis, who consistently points to the reality of evil and the necessity for a well-ordered society so that people can be free to live a robust life of faith.

Thinking about some of the news stories we’ve seen lately — from “Just call me Cate” to the buying and selling of aborted babies’ body parts — I wonder what Bill might be saying about this moral leader who seems to have a knack for making everyone feel unsettled, not entirely sure what he will say or do next.

The pope speaks about gender theory and marriage and creation in exactly the way, substantively, you might expect the bishop of Rome to speak. And yet people seem to be giving the Church a second look, if only superficially. Could it be out of a desire for the world to make some sense again? The Church of Pope Francis very much resembles the Church as WFB described it in his book Nearer, My God, his spiritual autobiography. He wrote: “The Church is unique in that it is governed by a vision that has not changed in two thousand years. It tells us, in just about as many words, that we are not accidental biological accretions, we are creatures of a divine plan; that the God who made us undertook to demonstrate his devotion to us as individual human beings by submitting to the pain and humiliation of the Cross. Nothing in that vision has ever changed, nothing at all, and this is for all Christians a mind-shaking, for some a mind-altering certitude, with which Christians live, in our earnest if pitiable efforts to clear the way for a love that cannot be requited.”

In a day when religious freedom is threatened throughout the world, we should recall one of Bill’s most searing lines: “Without freedom, there is no true humanity.”

This doesn’t have the drama of a thunderstorm good for ratings at ABC, but it resists the winds of change and attempts to root us in the traditions that have kept us free and flourishing. It also happens to point to a much fuller picture of who William F. Buckley Jr. was as a man and as an intellectual in American life — one who was humble, grateful, and, yes, exceedingly civil, so often bringing people together.

In a day when religious freedom is threatened throughout the world, we should recall one of Bill’s most searing lines: “Without freedom, there is no true humanity.” Without people exercising their freedom to give glory and praise to the Creator in their daily lives in the public square, there is no pluralistic society that can work well, allowing men and women to be who they were created to be. Bill helped people see that — day after day, when the storm was building and when the waters were calmer. Mercifully, he left us much to go back to. He’s one whom we should not forget but instead should continue to download wisdom from.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the forthcoming revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.



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