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Notes & Asides from
(Basic Books)Like most aristocrats, the late William Buckley talked through his nose too much but --- unlike the rest of them --- he made us laugh. He also made us sigh for the good old days when English was English.
Dear Mr. Buckley:
I am intrigued by your title on the masthead, Editor-at-Large. Does this mean that among all National Review editors you are the only one let out of the cage? Or does it mean that you have escaped, and that those in authority there mean to recapture you and re-name you Editor-in-Residence?
No one that I know of has offered a reward for my recapture, and I am not giving myself up. Please do not identify the source of this letter.
Buckley was a show-off who, it is safe to say, never grew up:
Dear Mr. Buckley:I am a 12-year-old boy from Oyster Bay, New York. If you could give me advice for life, what would it be?
Don't grow up.
Like most juvenile delinquents, he didn't care a button for ancient forms and pleasures --- outside of an obvious delight with language, medieval governance, and the likes of Julius Caesar, Metternich, Pope Urban III.
When a woman wrote asking him to "consider replacing your use of the term 'Congressman' with 'Congressperson,'" he replied, with true classical phrasing:
The arguments you use are very familiar and we plead nothing more than the clumsiness of the "person" suffix, an affront to the ear and the plague of freshpersons in college everywhere.
I well remember Buckley appearing at my school in a forum, in 1956. Subsequently, in the April Fool issue of the college newspaper, some dunderhead printed a picture of a certain unnamed European demagogue of the previous era, with the caption "William Buckley." Buckley threatened to sue. Gilbert White, the gentle Quaker President of Haverford, offered to fry the newspaper editor in oil for his bad taste, not to say bad judgment. One of our friends suggested, as expiation, the newspaper reprint the very same photograph with the caption "Not William Buckley."
Buckley was fond of bad taste --- but possibly not that bad. In 1961, his six-year-old periodical National Review said that rather than impeach the sitting Chief Justice Earl Warren we should just hang the bastard. People protested, saying that it was "not very nice." Buckley replied,
No, indeed: which is why we said it, niceness being beside the point we originally sought to convey, namely that there were, and are, no constitutional grounds on which to impeach Earl Warren, undesirable though he is as Chief Justice.
Got it? When they accuse you of being crude, a bully, a vulgarian ... reply with wit, skew away as quickly as possible the baseness of your original words, and, in the process, use high-falutin' words.
§ § §
Buckley was apparently much beloved. He has seeded this volume with sanctimonious letters from politicians, writers, and other ne'er-do-wells out there ... not only from the country club pest-houses of the South and Middle West, but from certain northeastern portions of the United States, supposed homes of enlightened sanctity and reason. This makes us suspect that all those movers and shakers in New York do little more than drink, chat, gossip and hang out together, no matter their supposed political allegiances. This from Max Frankel, Sunday editor of the New York Times, responding to a proofing error in a Buckley piece:
The order here is not to "fiddle" with your copy. Therefore, when you wrote in the recent review of Dick Reeves that Ford's "public support when down," it was assumed by no fewer than 14 copyreaders that you were supplying some special stylistic touch and a most pregnant interpretation.
So you see we were guilty of nothing more than hero-worship, of which we would, of course, be delighted to be disabused.
Any other problems?
§ § §
In this collection of letters we get to see Buckley at his best and at his worst. Like most kids he is shameless, taunts us with his naughty deeds (like the Hang-Earl-Warren caper). He seems to be on just-call-me-Bill basis with many of the great scoundrels of his day, so we get encomiums to and from the likes of Nixon, Ford, and Reagan (one to the latter is addressed "Dear Ron" and signed "Bill").
Then there's the matter of Margaret Thatcher. A very funny note is included here, where, in interview on Firing Line, he thought she called him "Bill;" he then responded, calling her "Margaret." Later he finds out that she was referring to "a bill that lay before the House of Commons." Maybe we can blame it on the snooty, sometimes unintelligible, accents of the two parties involved.
There were verbal kisses to and from the likes of Spiro Agnew, Henry Kissinger, and the man who would be king, Alexander Haig. Art Buchwald seemed intent on buttering him up every few months with fawning letters. Evelyn Waugh and that long-lived editorial simpleton, James Kirkpatrick, did the same.
Buckley's back and forth gets more tart with people like Arthur Schlessinger and Eric Alterman of The Nation. The latter recalls an event at Cornell University, when he was a student, Buckley taking questions. A young man, "voice breaking with emotion" asks, "Mr. Buckley .... have you ever gone hungry?"
According to Alterman, Buckley responded "Why, yes, my yacht experienced an unfortunate shortage of stuffed goose recently between Nassau and the Bahamas."
This wicked humor tickles some of us greatly. It's arch, it's caustic ... and it makes my point, the one that recurs so often in this epistolary novel. It's the ripostes, the elegant vocabulary, the easy wit. It is the essence of an upper-class rogue.
Buckley responded to the recitation of his run-out-of-goose quip by denial. "Your memory is defective. I don't even know what stuffed goose tastes like. And the lilt of the sentence you ascribe to me doesn't fit, unless the context in which it was said was comic." [Our italics.]
In other words, if I commit a base indiscretion, admitting to being a plutocrat short an expensive delicacy, out there in my seventy-foot sailing vessel, somewhere in the north Caribbean ... If those words came from my mouth (or from my pen), I tell you, you have to be wrong. You misunderstood me. Maybe it's the way I talk. Or better ... it was just a joke. We do know how to laugh at ourselves now, don't we?
§ § §
The Dallas Morning News received a letter from an Edward Grimes stating,
Mr. William Buckley in his News column June 23 states that he "cohabits comfortably with H. L. Mencken ... Thus by his own confession he is both a homosexual and a necrophile."
Instead of getting miffed, Buckley turns professor, turns back to his beloved English. He replies by quoting the Oxford English Dictionary as well as his own writings in National Review to the effect that he can "cohabit most comfortably with Mencken"
in his insistence that the government is the natural enemy "of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men."
Then the twist, from intellectual to street-wise ruffian: "Grimes, baby, I'd hate to see your Rorschach test."
Buckley, bless his heart, forever the juvenile: a lively, language-drunk, politically naïve, Swiftian charmer.--- Thomas W. Moore