‘We’d like now to demonstrate how the English language ought to be used by two craftsmen.” So remarked Howard K. Smith on the night of the first of what would turn out to be ten historic debates between pugilists William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.
Over the years, much has been made about these debates, of which 2018 marks the 50th anniversary. They were subject of a 2015 documentary, Best of Enemies, in which they are presented as having presaged (or foreboded) modern political punditry, tawdriness and all. (The film might just be the best record of these exchanges that is available in the public domain.) The great irony, according to the film’s underlying thesis, is that these two intellectual giants, who were supposed to represent within their respective ideological cohorts (Buckley, conservative; Vidal, liberal) what was best of American culture in their own time, would in fact be the progenitors of the hollowed-out polemics of today.
In truth, though, the debates reflected the mores of a different country altogether more than they prefigured today’s political rifts. Indeed, they serve as a time capsule for a period in American history that is long gone. Marshal McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in 1964. So it was perfectly fitting that Buckley and Vidal, who back in 1968 were two of the finest thespians in the burgeoning medium of television, would swiftly be anointed its arbiters. With their transatlantic accents, classical educations, and aristocratic demeanors, they represented endangered species of a rapidly vanishing age. For their era, Buckley and Vidal represented worldviews that certainly deviated from the political mainstream. Nevertheless, they were top-of-the-line thinkers. They were perspicacious in their political insight, candor, and convictions — never emotive, always intuitive. And, with their constant refashioning of ideas into new media (Buckley started with print magazines, made a career out of television, and finally molded his talents to the Internet), they never burnt out, never became outmoded. They were, in short, the perfect people to hand over the baton and set the standard to which television should aspire.
In this endeavor, they failed. As both men entered into their eighth decades (both were born in 1925; Vidal was a month older), their public-spiritedness remained ever vivacious, outdone only by their abiding dislike for one another. But they came to represent in their final days an America that no longer existed. Each embodied the old-fashioned WASP stereotype (though neither was actually of that cut) that slipped into the recesses of time, soon to be replaced by a banal meritocracy that prided diversity and atomization over community and harmony. This culture, crudely homogenized and depressingly mediocre, left both men somewhat bewildered and in desperate search of their new identities in an indifferent, mass society.
The cultural elite, long represented by the left-leaning American political establishment, was now commanded by a ruling class hell-bent on routing every last bit of genuine individuality from the public square. This was not the technocratic individuality resulting in Marxian conformity and enlargement of the nanny state. But real, spirited, individuality in its classical definition.
In their later years, Buckley and Vidal vented, to varying degrees, opprobrium against their country’s new direction. In the final years of his life, Buckley, appearing on Charlie Rose’s show, confessed that he was “tired” of living and described our society as fallen into a “listless” condition.
Vidal, who is documented as having given up on the American experiment after, in his view, Harry Truman capitulated to the military-industrial complex in 1950, described his country as though it were suffering from a terminal disease. It would be a shock for many to learn that the author who promoted transgenderism in his controversial novel Myra Breckinridge (1968) later described our post-Christian nation in malicious terms. But he did.
It may be unfair to equate pre-Sixties liberalism with the morally vacuous, post-Sixties variant engineered by those dissidents, rabble-rousers, and neo-Marxists of the countercultural revolution.
What explains this? That Buckley, a right-winger, was gloomy about our culture is one thing — but it may be said that, of the two, he was (perhaps owing to his Christianity) the less pessimistic about our future. Vidal ardently fought for the free-spirited, libertine, and “post-Christian” society that our country had largely become, acting out of an inherited cultural sensibility apropos of the Greatest Generation — the last to have fully inherited a pre-secular America. Did they not foresee the consummation of their actions?
It may be unfair to equate pre-Sixties liberalism with the morally vacuous, post-Sixties variant engineered by those dissidents, rabble-rousers, and neo-Marxists of the countercultural revolution. We seldom grasp just how profoundly an effect the “Nietzscheanization” (to borrow a term of Allan Bloom’s) of the modern university, and its percolation into American culture that had become parasitical around the time Buckley and Vidal debated exactly one half-century ago, was in shaping — and irrevocably altering — our society.
Gore Vidal later responded to this tragic reality, but in such a way that he subordinated his public liberalism to his inherited, aristocratic convictions. Sounding almost as though he were a paleoconservative, he routinely and cynically portrayed the United States as a cruel, merciless, and militaristic society. In speeches and interviews increasingly throughout the last 20 years of his life, he scathingly condemned President Truman’s rechristening the United States as the military-industrial complex. Resistant to critical self-evaluation, Vidal lashed out at politicians, presidents, the press (the New York Times being an eternal favorite), actors, writers, the political elite, and his fellow countrymen. The spasmodic nature of these outbursts — never aligning neatly to any particular ideological category — were all the more complicated by his eccentric lifestyle; his expatriation to the Italian Amalfi Coast, where he lived and wrote in relative solitude, away from the degradation of America, his most beloved subject.
In domiciling an ocean away from his treasured birthplace — in the country home to the eternal city, Rome, which Russell Kirk described as the last conservative sanctuary — Vidal seemed to be unconsciously surrendering to his genuine, classical proclivities, which ultimately moved him toward tradition. It may be said that Vidal’s lived experience more honestly revealed his true passions than either his thoughts or words did. He was a conservative after all, not for any particular creed per se, but for the practices and traditions he inherited originally. In short, a conservative of nostalgia he was, regularly afflicted with episodes of cognitive dissonance — in a vein reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson or H. L. Mencken.
Following the 1968 debates, Vidal’s coming to terms with both himself and his country, in a way that might be described as a seamless progression. It contrasts quite sharply with the more disorderly case of William F. Buckley Jr.
Buckley, who originally crusaded for conservative fusionism, consolidating a diverse array of anti-Communists, libertarians, Catholics, and traditionalists all under the tent of his fledgling magazine, National Review, in the 1950s, also changed with the times. He was, as his younger brother Reid describes him in Best of Enemies, a “conservative, right-wing, libertarian Christian” who, like Vidal, grew disenchanted with our country’s course. But where Vidal’s ideology may be said to have been in the ascendancy when the two debated in 1968, Buckley in many ways had the final say. At the time of his death in 2008, the conservative movement was coming off the heels of nearly 30 years of national dominance, following a model spearheaded by Buckley and Reagan, who emphasized deregulated markets, decentralized government, and traditional morality.
Fifty years after the debate in which Buckley and Vidal represented opposite sides of the political spectrum, they now would arguably find themselves more aligned than at any point during their lifetimes.
Nevertheless, Buckley, for all that he was regaled for his political accomplishments, sensed the beginnings of a problem that would only grow in the years following his death. It is a fact that Buckley was never sold on the Bushes, whom he wrote off as not true conservatives. He also did an about-face on the Iraq War, calling it an abject failure. He campaigned against it in his final years.
In this it can be seen that, first and foremost, it was Buckley’s Roman Catholic faith that informed his worldview. He was at heart a devout student of Russell Kirk’s, and even late in life he continued to consult Malcolm Muggeridge for spiritual advice, to say nothing of his earlier political kinship with Whittaker Chambers, that great contrarian and eternal skeptic of the modern world. It was in part to redress the deep-seated pessimism exemplified by Chambers that Buckley founded NR. If Chambers was correct that conservatism was unsalvageable, why, Buckley asked over a period of 50 years, should anyone have tried to save it?
Fifty years after the debate in which Buckley and Vidal represented opposite sides of the political spectrum, they now would arguably find themselves more aligned than at any point during their lifetimes. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal were at bottom grand preservers of the Western project, toward which they both contributed and from which they benefited immensely. They enjoyed the classics, philosophy, and great music. They studied religion. Both inherited a sacred tradition — not to be refashioned, or squandered, but to be venerated, praised, and dignified for what it was: a timeless, elevating birthright. To argue to the contrary would be to refute history. Both would have condemned identity politics and the culture’s rancid equalitarianism, even if their doing so subjected them to some cognitive dissonance. And both would have restlessly fought today, with the same zeal as they did in 1968, to preserve their inheritance, amid the tidal wave of contemporary debaucheries that so threaten our historical birthright. The significance of the Buckley–Vidal debates in 2018 is not that they drew battle lines for the modern culture wars but rather that they were the swansong of the final American generation to have a shared and mutual reverence for their country’s founding principles — a reverence that is, perhaps, never to be seen again.