Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties
by Kevin M. Schultz
387 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015
a review by Mike O’Connor
In the Showtime series The Affair, Noah Solloway is a high school English teacher, unsuccessful novelist and seemingly happy family man. In the manner of the middle-aged American male that he is, he attempts to find something that he believes himself to have lost by beginning a torrid affair. As the relationship blossoms into love, Noah destroys his home and family and even loses his job.
The turmoil provides the inspiration to write a second, sex-obsessed novel…about a middle-aged man who has an affair. The book rockets to the top of the best-seller lists and makes Noah a literary celebrity who now has difficulty staying faithful to the woman for whom he has left his wife. Noah is a destructive presence in the lives of everyone close to him, and the sexual obsession that drives his literary fame only underscores his immaturity and self-absorption. The show makes this point abundantly clear when Noah meets with a boorish Hollywood producer who wants to make a movie of the book. The producer expresses how impressed he is with Noah’s work, claiming that he courageously writes about sex in a way that is no longer welcome in our “politically correct” age. The climax of his catalogue of praise arrives when he calls Noah the “literary son of Norman Mailer.”
This depiction represents the space that Mailer occupies for many today. The writer’s combative personal manner, characterized by egotism and machismo, has not aged well. His essay “The White Negro,” with its depiction of the African American as one who “could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and…kept for his survival the art of the primitive,…relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body,” hardly strikes today’s readers as racially progressive. He had six wives, one of whom he stabbed, and feminists often view him as a fundamentally misogynist figure. Given the ambivalence with which many view him now, it is easy to overlook the extent to which Mailer was a significant intellectual and political presence in the nation’s history. In his book Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties, Kevin Schultz (the current president of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History) reminds us of a different Mailer: the committed leftist. Contrasting Mailer with conservative movement-builder William F. Buckley, Jr., Schultz delivers an accessible and compelling portrait of both men and the times in which they lived.
Mailer established his reputation with the publication of the National Book Award-winning 1948 war novel The Naked and the Dead and published a dozen novels before his death in 2007. Additionally, his “nonfiction novels” played a prominent role in the development of new journalism: The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1979) both won the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer also worked in journalism: he frequently published in magazines and was one of the founders of the The Village Voice. Though a writer by trade, his work often featured political themes, and his was an important presence in American politics and letters for most of his adult life.
William F. Buckley, Jr. was born not quite three years after Mailer; in the American postwar political conversation his voice was just as prominent as the writer’s. Buckley, however, used his to different effect. Mailer was an iconoclastic apostate within the reigning liberalism of the period. “Call me a radical, a rebel, a red, a revolutionary, an outsider, an outlaw, a Bolshevik, an anarchist, a nihilist or even a left conservative,” he wrote, “but please don’t ever call me a liberal.” (55)
Buckley was equally disdainful of liberalism. But while Mailer articulated a subjective disdain for it rooted in his own creativity, Buckley was interested in building a mainstream conservative movement to oppose it. Schultz repeatedly refers to Buckley as a “salesman” for conservative ideas. As such, Buckley sought first and foremost to develop positions and candidates that would be attractive to voters. (In conservative circles, the “Buckley rule” refers to the injunction to support “the rightwardmost viable candidate.”) Buckley founded National Review, which he edited, in 1955. The magazine soon became the most important organ of the American right and played a pivotal role in the conservative takeover of the Republican Party. He wrote a syndicated newspaper column, which came to appear in over 300 newspapers. Buckley began a televised public affairs debate program, Firing Line, in 1966. The show soon moved to PBS and remained on the air until 1999. By the late 1960s, Buckley was, in Schultz’s words, “a bona fide celebrity.” (226)
Buckley was a proselytizer who came to enjoy political influence by the time of the Reagan presidency. Thus his space on the right does not exactly parallel Mailer’s on the left. When conservatism was a marginalized political approach, Buckley was interested in building a movement; as that movement picked up supporters, he sought to use it to put conservatives in office. Mailer’s radicalism, by contrast, seemed less about specific candidates or laws than it was about serving as what Schultz calls the nation’s “emerging minister of culture.” (66) To a large extent this reflects the broader movements themselves: liberals and leftists have long enjoyed a sense that their values are in tune with cultural trends, while conservatives are more likely to, in Buckley’s famous words, “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” The result is that many of the left’s most powerful icons are more cultural than political. “In the realms of economic policy and electoral power, conservatives did very well,” wrote Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America, but “in the sphere of culture, the [l]eft had its share of victories.” (6) A recent documentary film, Best of Enemies, reinforced this point by concentrating on Buckley’s feud with another writer on the left: Gore Vidal.
There simply is no leftist Buckley, nor is there a conservative Mailer. The fact that frames the book, then, is that that the two men shared what Mailer called a “difficult friendship.” (4) They met in 1962 when a promoter scheduled a debate in Chicago between “the conservative mind and the hip mind” (17) on the topic, “What is the real nature of the right wing in America?” (19) The debate was a success and soon thereafter Buckley invited Mailer and his wife to his home in Connecticut. A friendship soon developed, though it is sometimes hard to tell from Buckley and Mailer just how close this relationship was. The two men appear to have written each other a fair amount, but the book depicts only a limited number of episodes in which they both appear in the same room. As a result, the book can come across as less one about a friendship than as more of a dual biography, relating a new analysis of the political orientations of the 1960s.
In this light, there are two central conceits of Buckley and Mailer. The first is that the book’s two subjects began from a common intellectual starting point: a revulsion at postwar liberalism. In the 1960s, this referred to the Cold War, economic prosperity, large corporations and the technocratic bureaucracy embodied by a figure like Robert McNamara. Buckley disapproved of this “Liberal Establishment” because it failed to recognize the significance of Christian tradition and refused to wage the Cold War as aggressively as he believed that it should. Mailer agreed that liberalism was intellectually and emotionally impoverished, but his concerns were not the same as Buckley’s. Mailer’s criticisms echoed those of the works of social criticism of the 1950s: The Lonely Crowd (1950), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and The Organization Man (1956). For him, liberalism had created “a deterioration of desire, an apathy about the future, a detestation of the present [and] an amnesia of the past.” It has infiltrated and cheapened all of our pursuits. In architecture, medicine, labor, faith, sex, language and many other areas, liberalism “is the disease which destroys flavor.” (24)
Even as Buckley and Mailer expressed different diagnoses of the problem of liberalism, Schultz argues that they shared a more basic rejection of what he calls “The Rules.” These unwritten guidelines represented the “basic assumptions of society” in the postwar era and were seldom breached.
Adults were to be addressed as Mr. or Mrs., as were all strangers, even from one adult to another. Homosexuality was, of course, anathema, and usually illegal…Proper women were to be respected, but men were the strong caretakers…Atop the hierarchy were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and their rules and authority were to be unquestioned, or at least questioned with care. White Americans were situated above African Americans and other minorities, not so much because they were biologically better, but because they practiced The Rules better…To speak out in the name of one’s rights was to challenge what was perhaps the central tenet of [T]he Rules: obedience.
Politically speaking, “there was a huge middle in which to operate, the liberal middle. But options on the left and right were greatly circumscribed.” (50)
Even as Buckley and Mailer offered radically different prescriptions for how to improve society, Schultz suggests that the two men were kindred spirits in their shared antagonism toward The Rules. It is not clear, however, that this motif can bear the weight that Schultz places on it. First, the notion of The Rules paints the period with such a broad brush that it threatens to veer into caricature. One would have a hard time imagining Elvis Presley, the civil rights movement or the Beat Generation arising from a culture so hidebound by The Rules. Second, Buckley’s entire political project seemed oriented around restoring a lost respect for tradition and authority. This tendency would seem to make Buckley a defender, rather than a critic, of The Rules. In perhaps his most infamous editorial, the 1957 “Why The South Must Prevail,” Buckley positioned National Review against the civil rights movement. He argued that the “[w]hite community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically…because…for the time being, it is the advanced race.” His position was based on the premise that “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” Schultz is well aware of Buckley’s stance on civil rights, but struggles to explain it: perhaps Buckley was expressing the racism he had learned from his mother, or maybe these ideas merely reflected his political pragmatism. (122-23) But desegregation was the defining domestic issue of the time, not some idiosyncratic hobbyhorse. The relevant question here is not how Buckley came to these views, but how such a stance fits into his overall conservative worldview. If Buckley’s segregationism reflected little more than the conventional right-leaning respect for cultural traditionalism, then no complex explanation is necessary. But it would also mean that Buckley’s contempt for The Rules and all they represented did not go very deep.
This emphasis on The Rules leads to the second major point of the book. That is that “the intellectual and emotional journeys of these remarkable men…echoed that of much of the nation” during the 1960s. (7) On this interpretation, both the conservative Buckley and the radical Mailer were determined to overthrow The Rules, but they were uneasy with the chaos that replaced them. The civil rights movement, Vietnam protests, countercultural expressions and political assassinations contributed to an overall tone of chaos and anti-authoritarianism that made both Buckley and Mailer uneasy. Schultz makes this point vividly in the chapter on the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. It was the antiwar protest and subsequent “police riot” there that served as the provocation for Buckley, in a televised debate with Gore Vidal, to completely lose his composure in calling his opponent a “queer” who he would “sock in the goddamn face.” Buckley viewed the chaos and violence in Chicago “as a giant metaphor for the nation. The revolution he had sought for so long was not supposed to look like this, not at all. [Chicago] Mayor Daley was not his George Washington.” (248) Reacting to the same events, Mailer didn’t know “where his loyalties belonged—to the revolution or to the stability of the country.” (249) Both men seemed unable to understand the new reality that they themselves had done so much to create.
Since Schultz positions Buckley and Mailer as representatives of the 1960s right and left, his claim that they had important ideas in common is a provocative one. Both expressed hostility to Schultz’s Rules and yet found themselves disillusioned with the sixties “revolution” that overthrew them. Buckley and Mailer suggests that those on the left and right could, at one point, agree about such important matters while civilly and even affectionately maintaining a commitment to their own ideology. In today’s era of political polarization, this example merits a closer look.
Mike O’Connor is the author of A Commercial Republic: America’s Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism. He blogs at eight hundred words.