“He is conservative but good”

Thus spoke in 1973 my American friend, when we were watching William F Buckley’s talk show Firing Line.

William F Buckley

Having only been in America for less than a week, I knew little and understood less about Western politics. But I still thought the correct conjunction in my friend’s sentence would have been ‘and’, not ‘but’.

I was an intuitive, temperamental conservative, which is to say a real one. Conservatism (or for that matter its opposite) is a character trait more than any set of ideas. Those can be changed at the drop of a hat, while one’s personality is more or less immutable.

David Harewood

That’s why I’m wary of adult communists or other lefties who see the conservative light in their later years. ‘Adult’ is an important word there, for adolescents are hormonally given to bien pensant ideas conveyable in snappy slogans.

Yet if someone is still a communist in his late twenties, with his brain already wired properly, he remains a communist for life as far as I’m concerned. This, irrespective of the kind of politics he espouses publicly.

However, young visceral conservatives of an intellectual bent still need to find a way of relating their intuition to concrete ideas – political, philosophical and cultural. And most need guidance along that road.

This neophyte certainly did, and Buckley came to my aid. For the next 15 years I never missed a single episode of Firing Line, nor a single issue of his National Review, which was then the best journal of conservative opinion I’ve seen before or since.

Buckley’s influence on American political thought can hardly be overestimated. As he once wrote to me, it was thanks to National Review writers that the word ‘conservative’ acquired some respectability, at least this side of ‘liberal’, in effect illiberal, intelligentsia.

When years later I began to stand on my own intellectual feet, I outgrew some of Buckley’s ideas – but not the sense of gratitude I’ve always felt. His was the most immediate influence on my development, if not the deepest in the long run. (When asked who exerted a formative influence on me, I tend to mention Bach. Though this reply is usually seen as eccentric, it’s nonetheless true.)

And now the political drama Best of Enemies is playing at London’s Young Vic. It’s about the spat between Buckley and Gore Vidal during an ABC broadcast of the 1968 Republican convention.

Sight unseen, the play is just awful. And the sight will remain unseen because the reviews tell me everything I need to know.

To begin with, Buckley, with his patrician physique and accent, is played by the black actor David Harewood, as demanded by transracial rectitude. Since the rectitude is not only transracial but also transsexual, ideally the role should have gone to a black actress, lesbian for preference.

In any case, I no longer wish to subsidise even the transracial fetish, which is why all those black Hamlets and Uncle Vanyas will have to entertain someone else. Good luck to them.

One review I’ve read identifies Buckley as “a right-wing, libertarian, Christian intellectual with strong opinions on everything.” Gore Vidal, on the other hand, is described as “a liberal, left-wing, gay iconoclast.” In other words, Vidal was mainstream and Buckley a distinct outsider.

Vidal was also a successful writer of historical novels, though his scandalous fame came from a frankly pornographic book Myra Breckenridge, in which the eponymous character was a male transsexual.

I suppose one could say that, while Buckley was behind his time, Vidal was ahead of his: back in the 60s transsexuality hadn’t yet risen to the high moral ground it occupies today.

The review identifies both men as “failed politicians”, which is correct only superficially, meaning it’s wrong. Vidal indeed ran for political offices twice, once for the House then for the Senate, failing both times.

Buckley did run for mayor of New York in 1965 but, since he had no intention of winning, he didn’t really fail. In fact, when an interviewer asked him during the campaign what Buckley would do if he won, he replied: “Demand a recount”.

His reason for running was to gain a wider exposure for conservative ideas, and in that undertaking he succeeded. That, I’d suggest, would have been another interesting subject for a play, but Mr Graham is unlikely to follow my recommendations.

The central episode of his play, the sharp exchange between Buckley and Vidal, shows that conservatives hadn’t yet learned the lesson now taught universally.

When lefties insult us, we are supposed to be equable and civilised about it. By no means are we allowed to insult back, especially by mentioning pejoratively our offender’s race or sexual deviations. These days we know we could have our collar felt. But at that time the lesson hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

The contretemps started when the conversation veered towards rioting youngsters who expressed their opposition to the Vietnam war by raising Vietcong flags and burning American ones. Buckley compared them to Hitler Youth, not unreasonably. The modus operandi was indeed startlingly similar.

Vidal, on the other hand, felt that the youngsters’ protest was not just valid but commendable. “As far as I’m concerned,” he told Buckley, “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” All par for the course, but Buckley, who fought against the Nazis as an infantryman, refused to bend over and take his punishment.

He snarled: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.”

That sort of thing, says Graham, worries him more than anything else: “Of all the things I think of that terrify me – from the climate crisis to generational inequality – how we actually talk to each other or don’t talk to each other, and the anger and hate between different sides –  completely arbitrary, falsely binary, reductively simple sides – seems so unrepairable.”

What on earth is “generational inequality”? Does he mean “gender inequality”? One never knows with leftie scribes. And what exactly is “falsely binary”?

It’s the problem that worries him most, the inability to “talk to each other”, that’s truly irreparable (sorry, unrepairable, in Graham’s gobbledygook). For me at any rate.

Duels of any kind are only possible between equals – social, in the aristocratic duels of yesteryear, intellectual, in the verbal jousts of today. And, whether your chosen weapon is language or sword, the duel has to be fought according to set rules.

The rules of argumentative rhetoric were set thousands of years ago, but only conservatives ever follow them. Every left-winger with whom I’ve ever argued – and you might think I ought to have known better – speaks in ad hominems, non sequiturs, circular arguments and all other logical fallacies known to man.

One can’t argue with someone who doesn’t even know what an argument or a refutation is. “I refute you” is routinely uttered simply to register disagreement; “I disagree” is seen as QED sufficient argument.

In this particular instance, how do you argue rationally with someone who thinks that hoisting the flag of a hostile power is acceptable and desirable? Either you avoid such arguments like a French kiss with a Covid carrier or tell him to perform a ballistically improbable procedure on himself.

That’s how I’d converse with Mr Graham, should the subject of William F Buckley come up. Luckily that conversation will never happen: we revolve in different circles.

7 thoughts on ““He is conservative but good””

  1. 1. “those black Hamlets and Uncle Vanyas will have to entertain someone else”

    I guess if Olivier can play Othello it is OK for a black man to play Buckley. After all, they are actors “acting” a role.

    2. “Yet if someone is still a communist in his late twenties, with his brain already wired properly, he remains a communist for life”

    Even if no longer a professing communist would still say the “present” system is rotten and must be replaced.

    3. “Buckley’s influence on American political thought can hardly be overestimated. ”

    Very true. For many DECADES Buckley was the only conservative voice of reason that ever drew public attention. He was persuasive without any degree of fanaticism.

  2. My grandfather watched “Firing Line” and subscribed to “National Review”. (He was the best man I have ever known – my youngest son’s middle name honors him.) I did watch a few episodes of “Firing Line” when I was a teenager. I was only 4 at the time of the 1968 convention, but I do have some vague memories of later Vietnam War protests. If only more people reacted as did Buckley. I have long wondered what the parents of those protestors felt. Many were veterans of World War II and saw their children fighting on the opposite side in the new war. Even today we eagerly give away fundamental rights that many men died to protect. Progress.

    As for actors, I tried a quick internet search for a black, lesbian, quadriplegic. The results were mostly pornographic videos that I chose to avoid. Perhaps a scene or two can be added to “Best of Enemies”?

    1. That would have been a better title.

      Vidal was hideous, even though he came from an old family. Buckley’s father was the one who made the money, but he was no robber baron. Buckley himself grew up in Mexico and in France. He didn’t start speaking English until he was 7. It was his third language, after Spanish and French. In common with other people (who will go nameless) who write in their learned language, he sometime showed off his vast vocabulary. I remember reading his books, dictionary in hand, and it’s partly his doing that a dictionary is no longer necessary.

  3. One influential American conservative who always insults lefties without a care for civilities or language is the radio talk show host, Michael Savage. He takes it far at times but I still break a rib laughing

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