Friday A/V Club: Behind the Buckley/Vidal Debates

Free speech, flags, a police riot, and the other time Bill Buckley called Gore Vidal a queer


Burr 2: Electric Boogaloo
The Simpsons

Best of Enemies, a documentary about Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley's televised debates during the 1968 presidential conventions, makes its theatrical debut today. I haven't watched the movie yet, but I'm very familiar with the infamous exchange at the core of it—the part where Vidal said Buckley was a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley replied by calling Vidal "you queer" and telling him to "stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." A brief clip of that moment has been on YouTube for ages, and as I write it has a view count of 882,411.

William Buckley's stunt double, Joe Flaherty

Not nearly as many moderns have seen the full 13-minute-plus segment that culminated in that moment (current view count: 83,492), so I've embedded it below. The evening's topic was the police riot then underway in the streets and parks of Chicago, where the Democratic convention was taking place. The immediate context for Vidal and Buckley's insults involved a group of demonstrators in Grant Park who had decided to lower the American flag. I've seen several competing claims about what exactly the protesters ran up the pole in its place, including some accounts in which it was someone's underwear, but on the program that night it was described as the banner of the Viet Cong.

Whatever sort of flag or long johns it was, the stunt had sparked one of the week's many bursts of violence. The host asked Vidal whether "raising a Nazi flag in World War II would have had similar consequences." Vidal took the position that freedom of speech includes the right to wave whatever flag you want. Buckley, sticking with the host's World War II comparison, commented that "some people were pro-Nazi" and that they deserved to be shunned. Vidal then declared that "the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself," and with that Buckley unleashed the q-word and threatened to beat Vidal up.

That's the short version. The whole reel is here:

There is, as you might have guessed, a lot of backstory to this. Vidal and Buckley had been sniping at each other for several years, going back to their alternating appearances on the Jack Paar show in 1962. Beyond that, Jeet Heer argued this week in The New Republic that the phrase "crypto-Nazi" got under Buckley's skin for reasons related to his personal background. (Buckley's father was an anti-Semite, and as a youngster Bill had shared that outlook before outgrowing it.)

And you'll stay plastered!
Yale University Press

And then there's "you queer." Vidal made no secret of the fact that he had sex with men, and this was not the first time Buckley had cited his sexuality in such crude terms. (In the '60s, queer was crude indeed—this was long before the word had been "reclaimed" by Queer Nation, queer theory, and so on.) Back in 1962, after Vidal had criticized Buckley on Paar's show, Buckley had sent the host a telegram instructing him to "PLEASE INFORM GORE VIDAL THAT NEITHER I NOR MY FAMILY IS DISPOSED TO RECEIVE LESSONS IN MORALITY FROM A PINK QUEER." He added that if Vidal "WISHES TO CHALLENGE THAT DESIGNATION, INFORM HIM THAT I SHALL FIGHT BY THE LAWS OF THE MARQUIS [sic] OF QUEENSBERRY." This was presumably a double allusion, covering both the Marquess' role in publicizing Oscar Wilde's homosexuality and the rules he endorsed for the sport of boxing. (It thus presaged both "you queer" and "sock you in the goddamn face.") The telegram is quoted in Buckley's account of his war with Vidal, published in Esquire in 1969.

Buckley's magazine sometimes invoked Vidal's sexual proclivities as well, never in a friendly manner. At some point, Vidal evidently decided to needle Buckley with innuendos of his own. In earlier installments of their '68 debates, he had called the conservative "the Marie Antoinette of the right wing" and told him that "if there were a contest for Mr. Myra Breckinridge, you would unquestionably win it." (Myra Breckinridge is the transsexual title character in one of Vidal's novels.) When Buckley had his outburst, lines like that were surely simmering somewhere in his mind. (They were certainly on his wife's mind. "Two hundred million Americans think William F. Buckley is a screaming homosexual," she told Murray Kempton after one of Vidal's barbs, "and I've got to do something about it.")

After the debates were finished, Vidal's intimations became more overt. His response to Buckley's Esquire piece, also published in Esquire, includes this passage:

A romantic comedy

Buckley begins his tirade with, I should have thought, a most dangerous quotation from The East Village Other to the effect that Buckley has been found guilty of exercising "faggot dialectic." The implication is plain. The writer thinks that Buckley is a faggot. He is not alone. Norman Mailer even shouted the word "fag" at Buckley during a Les Crane taping: It was cut from the show…how innocent television was before Chicago last summer! Now Buckley's private life should be a matter of no concern to The East Village Other or even to that vivacious compendium The Homosexual Handbook whose listing of well-known degenerates includes, on page 261, "William F. Buckley: Writer, professional candidate. Mr. Buckley hosts a television program and conducts it with a flourish and a zest, with such brilliant gestures and hand movement, that Gore Vidal is reported to have called him 'the Marie Antoinette of American politics.'" Now to include Buckley in a list of homosexuals is doubtless slanderous. In any case, every public figure is vulnerable to this sort of rumor, which is why it seems to me odd that someone like Buckley, himself suspect, should be so quick to smear others as "queers."

There is more of this in the rest in the article, and for that matter in comments that followed the article. The writer Bill Kauffman, who corresponded with Vidal for many years, tells me that the novelist questioned Buckley's heterosexuality in a letter in the early 1990s. This would have been around the same time Buckley published his book In Search of Anti-Semitism, which among other things called Vidal "genuinely and derisively anti-Semitic." Buckley stopped short of pronouncing his rival a crypto-Nazi, but it still feels a bit like those old accusations from '68 had been reversed.

But that's enough on the sexual politics of celebrity feuds. Beneath the blustering insults, that old shouting match at the convention contains a still-relevant debate about free speech and police violence. You really should watch the whole thing, and not just its famous crescendo.

(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

NEXT: Morrissey Claims Sex Assault by TSA, Malaysian Jet Debris Found on French Island, Man Arrested for Shooting Backyard Drone: A.M. Links

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  1. “This would have been around the same time Buckley published his book In Search of Anti-Semitism, which among other things called Vidal “genuinely and derisively anti-Semitic.””

    Well, given that Vidal published an article in the 1980’s claiming that pro-Israel Jews were all fifth columnists and in which he also called Jews a ‘predatory people,’ I don’t think the charges of anti-Semitism are inaccurate.

    And in the same article Vidal claimed America should ally with the Soviet Union against the Chinese and Japanese, since we’re all white people and the Asian peril will sweep us aside.

    The article has to be read to be believed.

    “My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is a minority race with many well deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers?or, worse, mere entertainment?for the more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.”

    Vidal was a terrible person who doesn’t get criticized for his racism and anti-Semitism nearly as often as he deserves.

    1. And on Jews:

      “Significantly, the one Yiddish word that has gained universal acceptance in this country is chutzpah. Example: In 1960, Mr. and Mrs. Podhoretz were in upstate New York where I used to live. I was trying out a play at the Hyde Park Playhouse; the play was set during the Civil War. “Why,” asked Poddy, “are you writing a play about, of all things, the Civil War?” I explained to him that my mother’s family had fought for the Confederacy and my father’s for the Union, and that the Civil War was?and is?to the United States what the Trojan War was to the Greeks, the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic.

      “Well, to me,” said Poddy, “the Civil War is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses.” I realized then that he was not planning to become an “assimilated American,” to use the old-fashioned terminology; but, rather, his first loyalty would always be to Israel. Yet he and Midge stay on among us, in order to make propaganda and raise money for Israel?a country they don’t seem eager to live in. Jewish joke, circa 1900: A Zionist is someone who wants to ship other people off to Palestine.”

      Norman Podheretz is insufficiently excited about the Civil War, therefore he is obviously an Israeli fifth columnist who is insufficiently assimilated!

      1. Podhoretz isn’t interested in the Civil War? Is he some kind of qu-I mean unusual person?

      2. Let’s be fair and balanced:

        “The sobering answer is Yes?the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

        Entitled to do what? Dominate blacks in the South, of course, and deny their equal rights, by any means necessary, even if they are the majority.

        1. Tony derp de derp. Derp de derpity derpy derp. Until one day, the derpa derpa derpaderp. Derp de derp da teedily dumb. From the creators of Der, and Tum Ta Tittaly Tum Ta Too, Tony is Da Derp Dee Derp Da Teetley Derpee Derpee Dumb. Rated PG-13.

        2. Buckley’s racism is wider known than Vidal’s, but even setting that aside he admits a caveat that most dyed-in-the-wool racists do not: “for the time being”. I think Buckley, like many conservatives (and all progressives), did not see the distinction between society and state. At least, not in his younger days. So the law being unjust against blacks was acceptable to him because it was a natural product of their inherent social station. That there could be a feedback effect in play was I think something he only realized later.

        3. Aaaaand Reason’s resident racist leftist takes his daily dump.

    2. “After all, the white race is a minority race with many well deserved enemies”

      translation: come on guys, we’re white…let’s set aside our petty ideological differences and focus on skin color

    3. Also, Gore Vidal’s ‘pansexuality’ may have (unconfirmed rumours) included pedophilia. Pederast is a far better insult than ‘queer’.

  2. “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

    Should be a standard response to any mewling leftist.

    1. Sure, except for g__d___ed

      1. Goddamnit, Eddie. “Lord’s Name” – not “generic term for deity”.

        Lighten up, Pope Francis.

        1. Eh, lighten up yourself. I can be offended by whatever I want.

          1. Is there any thread where you can’t stop yourself from hurling The Ten (Twelve? Eleven??) Commandments at us?

            1. It’s up to 13 now.
              Thou shalt issue trigger warnings.

        2. Yep. That’s his title, not his name. Oh, His, sorry.

    2. I wish today’s public intellectuals had the honesty to hurl crude insults at one another, instead of pretending to be nice.

      1. There are still public intellectuals?

        1. I think he meant “intellectuals”.

          1. The thing is, Buckley usually didn’t talk to people like that – only to people who called him a nazi. Which is admittedly some heavy provocation.

            And he still ended up apologizing to Vidal.

            But you could be a flaming liberal, go on Buckley’s Firing Line program, and all you’d have to deal with would be a series of polite questions challenging your worldview. No raised voices or Yo Mama jokes.

            1. And he still ended up apologizing to Vidal.

              His “apology” is prefaced by around 10 pages of attack. (See the Esquire article.) Vidal “apologized” in his Esquire reply too. Those may be the two most vicious apologies in history.

      2. They’d have to actually disagree with each other first. There are lots of crude insults being flung on pundit shows, though.

      3. It would definitely make for better TV.

  3. Buckley wasn’t always so, um, bitchy about queers. His wife Patricia was one of the best-dressed women in New York, which takes a lot of doing, of course, and she surrounded herself with gay admirers. Buckley once asked a friend about the estimated percentage of gays in the U.S. Told it was said to be about 5%, Buckley sighed (theatrically, we can imagine) and said “Then I’ve met every one of them.”

    1. Buckley obviously lost his temper after being called a Nazi.

      Just because he called someone a queer in retaliation for being called a Nazi doesn’t mean he was especially bigoted against gay people.

      He just thought that one defamation deserved another.

      The other thing to remember is that calling Vidal a queer had a special sting–because Vidal made a big deal about how neither heterosexual or homosexual actually exists. He said we were all “pansexual”, and he wouldn’t use either heterosexual or homosexual to describe anybody else or himself.

      Calling Vidal a queer in that context was especially…ironic, and given that Buckley was on the top of his game in those days, I think it’s pretty safe to assume he was being ironic on purpose.

      1. The other thing to remember is that calling Vidal a queer had a special sting–because Vidal made a big deal about how neither heterosexual or homosexual actually exists.

        I really doubt that Buckley had this in mind when he said that. (If you read his Esquire piece, you’ll see that—like most Americans in 1968/69—he wasn’t really very clear on those sorts of distinctions at that point.) And I doubt there was much sting to the insult. To my eyes Vidal looks delighted when Buckley called him a queer.

        1. Well, let’s look at the distinctions Herr Buckley made at the time.

          From the wiki:

          “Buckley was to later apologize in print for having called Vidal a “queer” in a burst of anger rather than in a clinical context, but also reiterated his distaste for Vidal as an “evangelist for bisexuality”: “The man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction, and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.”[73]


          No doubt, Buckley thought that the addicts gay people should stay hidden in the closet, but he had distinct disdain for Vidal as a an “evangelist for bisexuality”, i.e. a pusher.

          Again, I suspect Buckley was aware that Vidal took exception to being called out as different because of his sexual proclivities, and I think Buckley was angry at being called a Nazi and very well may have gone for the “queer” jugular for exactly that reason.

          Surely, it was meant to be a personal insult.

          1. Surely, it was meant to be a personal insult.

            Yes—the same insult he had hurled in 1962.

  4. Damn, I miss Bill Buckley. Used to love his show – one of the few watchable things on PBS (along with Monty Python and Poldark).

    Piss on Queer Vidal.

    1. I saw it a couple time when I was I was kid – he sure seemed like a throwback to an earlier age.

      As for Vidal, I know literally nothing about him, but he sounds like an asshole.

      1. I once heard Vidal speak on the radio about atheism, and he used condescension toward theists in place of an argument. I thought, “Stop giving theists ammunition.”

    2. I used to love “Firing Line”; I never missed it. My parents thought I was a weird kid.

      1. I loved it, too.

        They’d never put something like that on PBS again.

        Give a voice to the crypto-fascists?

        I saw Free to Choose on PBS, too.

        It’ll never happen again.

  5. A lot of people see punching other people in the face as beyond the pale.

    As a libertarian, I can see how something that’s immoral doesn’t necessarily mean it should be illegal–like adultery, but, on the other hand, too, I can also see how something might be both illegal as it should be–and yet morally acceptable.

    Some people drive over the speed limit. Sometimes you get punched in the face for being lewd to someone’s daughter, girlfriend, or wife. There certainly isn’t a commandment against punching someone in the face.

    And I’d like to point out that William F. didn’t actually punch him in the face–it was more like a promise or a warning–Don’t go swimming until an hour after you eat lunch!

    Of course, these days, if William F. had actually socked Vidal–after calling Vidal a queer–that would make him worse than OJ. Buckley might never make it on TV again. They’d definitely vilify him for physically threatening a “pansexual”. Equal treatment, you know, but you can’t sock somebody you’d usually sock for calling you a Nazi–if they’re…flamboyant or “urban”?

    They should check their privilege.

    1. I’m an anarcho-capitalist with broadly pacifist sympathies.

      But I think the occasional punch in the face or brawl is an acceptable way to deal with conflicts. It’s in our nature.

    2. these days, if William F. had actually socked Vidal–after calling Vidal a queer–that would make him worse than OJ.

      Yep, hate crime.

  6. Here’s a criminal act: The DOD shows up to film the antics in Grant Park at the 1968 convention, and don’t manage to catch the audio track of MC5 playing live:

    Toward the end of that footage there’s someone wandering around with an Algerian flag.

    1. Well here’s some audio then…

      Kick out the jams, Mutha Fucka!

      1. I like this one from that Wayne State U. show even better:

  7. But civility is on the decline!

  8. They were certainly on his wife’s mind. “Two hundred million Americans think William F. Buckley is a screaming homosexual,” she told Murray Kempton after one of Vidal’s barbs, “and I’ve got to do something about it.”

    Go on…

  9. My goodness. is it even possible to be an anti-Semite without also being a Nazi or “crypto-Nazi” these days?

  10. Thank you for reminding the nation of the necessity of excluding the lower orders from the airwaves. As allowing the middle classes to appear on the BBC precipitated the collapse of the British Empire, saving this nation entails defunding PBS and returning rap music and other barbarisms to the streets.

      1. That’s socon speak for “Kick out the jams, Mutha Fucka!

  11. They must’ve had on their fighting trousers?

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