Gore Vidal takes down William F. Buckley (1968)

William F. As the Democratic National Convention prepares to nominate Barack Obama, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, it’s worth nothing that another memorable exchange occurred on this date.

Forty years ago, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley debated issues arising from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where anti-war protesters battled police near the convention hall.

During the third of their four debates, the politics became personal. Vidal and Buckley clashed over the protests. When moderator Howard K. Smith observed that the raising of the Vietcong flag in Grant Park was similar in effect to raising the Nazi flag during World War II, Gore objected. The U.S. had not declared war in Vietnam, many people object to the war, and besides, the protesters had a constitutional right to dissent.

Buckley objected, again attacking the dissenters as Nazis.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Vidal told him, “the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.”

“Now listen, you queer,” Buckley said, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in you goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

Smith said, “Gentlemen, let’s not call names,” and after a moment the civility resumed.

The only thing Vidal regretted about the encounter was his choice of words. He intended to call Buckley “fascist-minded,” not “Nazi.”

But that’s not the end of the story. A year later, Buckley asked Esquire if he could write about the encounter. Esquire’s editor, Arnold Gingrich, agreed, and asked Vidal if he would contribute.

Vidal responded with an extensive demolition of Buckley’s politics. In “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr.,” Vidal demolished Buckley’s politics and personality:

On Buckley’s debating style: “From past experience, I knew that as a debater Buckley would have done no research, that what facts he had at his command would be jumbled by the strangest syntax since General Eisenhower faded from the scene, that he would lie (‘McCarthy never won a majority in any state he ever ran in . . .’) with an exuberance which was almost but not quite contagious; and that within three minutes of our first debate, if the going got tough for him on political grounds, he would mention my ‘pornographic’ novel Myra Breckinridge and imply its author was a ‘degenerate.'”

On giving Buckley exposure on the national stage: “Then, on a January night in 1962, on The Jack Paar Show, there was a discussion of the Right Wing. I mentioned Buckley in a half sentence, something to do with his dismissal of Pope John?s encyclical Mater et Magistra as ‘a venture in triviality.’ Buckley was not mentioned again. Then, unfortunately, this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, according to Buckley. ‘Paar was evidently pressured to invite me to reply.’ Needless to say, Paar was not seriously ‘pressured’ by anyone except Buckley who rang him up and asked for ‘equal time.’ Buckley had now managed to get himself on national television. It was a heady moment. The fact that Paar cut him up badly made no difference. Buckley had finally hit the big time as a TV entertainer, and that was all that mattered. It is a source of some pain to me that, unwittingly, I helped Buckley lose his richly deserved anonymity. “

On Buckley’s taste in books: “As literary critic, Buckley is — how to put it? — lightly equipped. But that does not deter him. He will take on any subject with insolent pluck, confident that his readers are bound to be even more ignorant than he. He is probably right.”

Worse, to support the charge that Buckley was anti-Semitic, Vidal dredged up the vandalism of an Episcopal church in Sharon, Conn., — where the Buckleys lived — in 1944. Police, according to Vidal, found evidence at the Buckley’s house and took into custody three of the Buckley children (whether young William was one of the three was not mentioned). They were found guilty and fined.

The supposed reason behind the vandalism was that the church rector’s wife had sold a house in Sharon to a Jewish family, where a “gentleman’s agreement” was in existence to keep them out. Buckley’s father bitterly opposed the sale, and Vidal believes that Buckley had adopted his father’s prejudices. In the end,

Buckley is not of course a “pro crypto Nazi” in the sense that he is a secret member of the Nazi party (and I respond to Buckley’s charming apology to me with mine to him if anyone thought I was trying to link him to Hitler’s foreign and domestic ventures). But in a larger sense his views are very much those of the founders of the Third Reich who regarded blacks as inferiors, undeclared war as legitimate foreign policy, and the Jews as sympathetic to international communism.

Buckley sued Vidal and the magazine for libel, and settled out of court, with no public resolution of who was at fault. But elsewhere, it was clear that the queer beat down the crypto-Nazi at his own game.
Born: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet, playwright, author, philosopher, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1749; Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, novelist, poet, short-story writer, Dublin, 1814; Gustaf Hellstrum, author, journalist, critic, Kristianstad, Sweden, 1882; Liam O’Flaherty, novelist, short-story writer, Inishmore, Aran Islands, 1896; John Betjeman, poet, travel writer, Highgate, London, 1906; Roger Tory Peterson, ornithologist, artist, Jamestown, N.Y., 1908; Robertson Davies, novelist, playwright, essayist, Thamesville, Ontario, Canada, 1913; Janet Frame, novelist, memoirist, Dunedin, New Zealand, 1924; Mark Helprin, novelist, short-story writer, children’s author, New York City, 1947; Rita Dove, poet, Akron, Ohio, 1952.
Died: Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, memoirist, theologian, Hippo Regius, 430; Hugo Grotius, scholar, jurist, Rostock, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, 1645; Leigh Hunt, poet, essayist, critic, London, 1859; William Lyon MacKenzie, journalist, insurgent, Toronto, 1861; Frederick Law Olmsted, architect, author, Brookline, Mass., 1903; Bruce Catton, historian, Frankfort, Mich., 1978; Robert Shaw, actor, novelist, Western Ireland, 1978; Max Shulman, humorist, playwright, Los Angeles, 1988; Joseph Alsop, journalist, author, Washington, D.C., 1989; William Edgar Stafford, poet, Lake Oswego, Ore., 1993.