RIGHT, LEFT AND SOME MID­DLE GROUND

The braided sto­ries ofWil­liam F. Buckley and Nor­man Mailer of­fer in­sight into an era’s in­tel­lec­tual cul­ture

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Ge­of­frey Kabaser­vice Kevin Schultz’s new book ex­plores the odd-cou­ple re­la­tion­ship be­tween right-wing Buckley and

Au­thor Schultz con­tends that Buckley andMailer, for all their dif­fer­ences, lived sur­pris­ingly par­al­lel lives.

Buckley and Mailer

The Dif­fi­cult Friend­ship That Shaped the Six­ties

Kevin M. Schultz

W.W. Nor­ton.: 400 pp., $28.95

On July 12,1964, con­ser­va­tive in­tel­lec­tual leader Wil­liam F. Buckley Jr. flew to San Fran­cisco for the Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion. His plane was greeted at the air­port by hun­dreds of his young fol­low­ers, many of whom had leaped into pol­i­tics be­cause Buckley made con­ser­vatism seem ex­cit­ing, rel­e­vant and even fun. But the song that the young peo­ple sang on Buckley’s ar­rival (to the tune of the Amer­i­can stan­dard “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bai­ley”) re­vealed a cer­tain dis­con­tent with his on­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion from ide­o­log­i­cal fire­brand to po­lit­i­cal celebrity:

Won’t you come home, Bill

Buckley? Won’t you come home Fromthe Estab­lish­ment? Don’t pal with Nor­man

Mailer, Don’t sup with the Reds. Please give them up for Lent.

left-wing au­thor Mailer. Po­lit­i­cally, the two agreed on al­most noth­ing, yet they shared a con­tempt for the so-called lib­eral estab­lish­ment and the cen­trist con­sen­sus that held sway over U.S. pol­i­tics from the end of World War II un­til the mid-’60s. As Mailer told Buckley, “We both de­test the Estab­lish­ment, we don’t like the cen­ter, that’s why we can talk though we are on op­po­site sides.” At the same time, both men also craved the val­i­da­tion and so­cial en­trée that Estab­lish­ment ac­cep­tance could pro­vide. It’s a bit much to claim that theirs was “the dif­fi­cult friend­ship that shaped the six­ties,” in the words of Schultz’s sub­ti­tle. But their braided sto­ries of­fer con­sid­er­able in­sight into the po­lit­i­cally en­gaged in­tel­lec­tual cul­ture of that era.

Schultz con­tends that Buckley and Mailer, for all their dif­fer­ences, lived sur­pris­ingly par­al­lel lives. They were born within a few years of each other, served in World War II, and achieved lit­er­ary fame at a young age. Both helped start ide­o­log­i­cally charged me­dia out­lets in the mid-1950s (Na­tional Re­view for Buckley, Dis­sent and the Vil­lage Voice for Mailer) and raged against the peace, pros­per­ity and con­form­ity of Dwight Eisen­hower’s America. Both cast them­selves as rad­i­cals (even rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies) against the lib­eral or­der and wel­comed the break­down of that or­der (for quite dif­fer­ent rea­sons) in the 1960s. And yet their celebrity — which re­ceived a big boost when each man ran for New York mayor — turned them into estab­lish­ment fa­vorites. By the end of the ’60s, manyof their erst­while fol­low­ers viewed them as pub­lic­ity-mon­gers and sell­outs who needed to be taken down.

Buckley and Mailer were two of the most col­or­ful char­ac­ters of the 1960s, so Schultz’s ac­count can’t help but en­ter­tain. But his claim that the men had a “se­ri­ous and mean­ing­ful friend­ship” isn’t en­tirely con­vinc­ing. Each man spent much of the ’60s grap­pling with the civil rights, an­ti­war and fem­i­nist move­ments but rarely in di­a­logue with each other. They were reg­u­lar cor­re­spon­dents but met in­fre­quently, and Buckley was nowhere near as close to Mailer as hewas to other lib­eral in­tel­lec­tu­als such as John Kenneth Gal­braith and Richard Clur­man. When Buckley and Mailer at­tended Tru­man Capote’s fa­mous Black and White Ball in 1966, their only in­ter­ac­tion came whenMailer drunk­enly chal­lenged Buckley to a fist­fight.

Nor were Buckley and Mailer pur­su­ing sim­i­lar goals. Buckley was leader of a cause, who had suf­fi­cient clout that he could “re­move from his move­ment the ide­o­log­i­cal purists in each camp,” in­clud­ing Ayn Rand’s athe­is­tic ma­te­ri­al­ists and the John Birch So­ci­ety’s para­noid anti-com­mu­nists. He helped unite the dis­parate fac­tions of con­ser­vatism and har­nessed the move­ment to the prag­matic ser­vice of the Re­pub­li­can Party, which even­tu­ally paid off with Ron­ald Rea­gan’s win­ning the pres­i­dency in1980.

Mailer, on the other hand, was more a per­pet­ual en­fant ter­ri­ble than move­ment-builder, and he had lit­tle to do with the for­ma­tion of the New Left. His pol­i­tics were too idio­syn­cratic to have last­ing in­flu­ence; when he ran for New York mayor in 1969, his plat­form called for the city to se­cede fromthe state and re­or­ga­nize it­self into a se­ries of quasi-an­ar­chist com­munes. And what in­flu­enceMailer had on left­ist ac­tivistswas de­stroyed­whenhe be­came “a prime tar­get of the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment,” as Schultz puts it, in the ear­ly1970s.

In­deed, Mailer comes across in this ac­count as an ex­em­plar of (mostly) un­con­scious sex­ism, racism and ho­mo­pho­bia — far more so, iron­i­cally, than the con­ser­va­tive Buckley. And although Schultz be­lieves Mailer to have been a ge­nius — a be­lief that both Buckley andMailer also shared— the ex­cerpts from his fic­tion that ap­pear in the­bookare so cringe-in­duc­ingly aw­ful that the present­day reader may won­der why Mailer was ever taken se­ri­ously as anov­el­ist.

In ret­ro­spect, Mailer’s main lit­er­ary con­tri­bu­tion was to pi­o­neer the New Jour­nal­ism ap­proach that makes the au­thor a pri­mary char­ac­ter in his or her own quasi-fic­tional ac­count of fac­tual events— an ap­proach that Mailer re­ferred to as “His­tory as a Novel, the Novel as His­tory.” Although Schultz doesn’t men­tion it, Mailer’s great­est in­flu­ence on Buckley may have been to per­suade him to put his own per­son­al­ity front and cen­ter in his po­lit­i­cal writ­ings and to set­tle for what now might be called “truthi­ness” rather than try­ing to meet an ideal of per­fect ob­jec­tiv­ity.

In the long run, nei­ther Buckley norMail­er­was en­tirely happy with the “break in the set of norms that gov­erned Amer­i­can so­ci­ety” that they had helped bring about in the 1960s. But Schultz makes a good case for their sig­nif­i­cance, and their sto­ries pro­vide a per­son­al­ized viewof a tu­mul­tuous decade. Kabaser­vice is the au­thor, most re­cently, of “Rule and Ruin: The Down­fall ofModer­a­tion and the De­struc­tion of the Re­pub­li­can Party, FromEisen­hower to the Tea Party.”

Dave Pick­off As­so­ci­ated Press

NOR­MAN MAILER speaks at an an­ti­war rally in Cen­tral Park in 1966.

John Lent As­so­ci­ated Press

WIL­LIAM F. BUCKLEY cam­paigns for the New York­may­oralty in 1965.

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