He has worn his gestures like a cassock and mitre, William F. Buckley Jr. has: the haute Tory leaning back in his chair at preternatural angles, his anteater tongue darting from his mouth as if for gnats, his mind clicking and whirring in wicked ratiocination . . . and his voice -- a honking concoction of dislocation and breeding -- whinnying and hooting after the Flaubertian mot juste . . . zeugma . . . sesquipedalian, perhaps . . . and then . . . gasp! . . . pari passu . . . some doughy liberal foe is pierced through his bleeding heart and pronounced DOA by the culture police.
Time and again Buckley's teeth, as sharp and brilliant as a switchblade, form the grin of rebel victory. The polemical arena is littered with his victims. He reduced one guest on "Firing Line," novelist Nelson Algren, to hysterical singing. Some knew that in absence there is wisdom. Robert F. Kennedy, for one, declined a debate on the show, to which Buckley remarked as how the baloney was rejecting the grinder.
Boola Boola Bill. As he aged, he changed hardly at all. He has the eyes of a child who has just discovered a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat. Boating, weekly workouts with a New York cop and a frenetic work schedule have kept him spry and somewhat trim. He dresses with the custom-frayed collars, the brown-socks-and-black-shoes e'lan of the Happy Yalie. Even in late middle age he appears in short pants more often than Little Lord Fauntleroy. In books and glossy magazines he is often seen wearing bermudas whilst floating across lily ponds aboard a motorized punt.
Now, suddenly, a flood of autumnal anniversaries to make him feel, well, historical. Buckley turned 60 on Nov. 24; National Review is 30; this spring, "Firing Line" will be 20. Tonight at New York's Plaza Hotel everyone from President Reagan on down will gather to honor Buckley's passages. As the heft of the guest list suggests, conservatism in its myriad varieties is no longer the tiny and fractured opposition it was. It is the reigning dogma.
"I think Bill wishes we had a Democratic deficit so he could attack it," says his friend, economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
"It's true," Buckley says on the eve of all these commemorata. "I had much more fun criticizing than praising. I criticize Reagan from time to time, but it's nothing like Carter or Johnson."
There is no flash of dentata here, no pleasure in his observation. The voice is almost wistful.
Buckley and his very tall wife Pat own two residences: a house on the Connecticut shore of the Long Island Sound that has, as Buckley describes it, "the most beautiful indoor pool this side of Pompeii" and a sun room that is "the bordello the shah couldn't afford"; the other is an apartment at Park and 73rd, Dag Hammarskjo ld's old place, and it is here that a visitor has been invited for a chat "and a sandwich."
Arrangements have been made through Buckley's vigilant secretary at National Review since 1968, Frances Bronson. She is just one of the staff who appears in the Pepysian week-in-the-life memoir, "Overdrive," a book stuffed with paeans to Buckley's pleasures, to Gloria the maid, Jerry the driver, half-bottles of C ote R otie, the house, 10-minute naps, and, most famously, the customized limousine, which is roomy but . . . brown. "Overdrive" was followed by a tide of parodies, but none so weird and readable as the original:
"I completed my notes, and ate the perfect chicken sandwich Gloria brought me, with a glass of cool white wine. Pat came in, en route to her lunch, and we discussed the weekend plans, and she told me now don't forget that my black tie and cummerbund were in the pocket of my tux, and I promised I'd remember, and walked down the stairs with her, saw her out, and dangled for a minute over the harpsichord. There aren't many running points of tension in my household, but one of them is that Pat persists in perching a half-dozen photographs on the harpsichord."
One wanted to gaze upon the sources of Buckley's delight, to see what it is to "dangle" over a musical instrument, what it is to live in a house where familial tension sounds more like a Bach toccata than the works of Twisted Sister. Most of all, one wanted a chance at that "perfect chicken sandwich."
So on a bright autumn midday, a visitor raps on Buckley's door.
Gloria answers. The Gloria!
"Mr. Buckley will be with you soon," she says. "He said to wait for him in the library . . ."
. . . which is an Anglophilic wonderland of leather-bound books (many of them Buckley's own), a gutted jungle beast for a rug, a Christian icon found in a place near the ski slopes of Gstaad, a steamship-size desk with just the proper amount of scarred, stained wood and torn leather. Buckley owns eight computers -- his latest fascination -- but a computer would not do perched on such a desk.
Nearby, a small table is set for two.
After 10 minutes or so, Buckley descends the staircase, hand extended, drink offered.
"Hiii," he says.
And he says it beautifully. In just a syllable one hears the breathy resonances of his public image, the gassy aristocrat, the inspiring gadfly.
In fact Buckley gets to talking about his voice. He likes the sound of it. While he sails, he has been known to listen to a tape of David Frye imitating him.
"I've got an unusual accent, sure. I've heard a few of those imitators do me but what they actually say never makes any sense. All the emphasis is on the sound I emit. If you actually got hold of a transcript of what they say, it would be ghastly. There's no content there.
"What sort of accent is it? I grew up in Mexico and spoke only Spanish until I was 6. I went to a French school for a year, then to London, where I spoke English for the first time, then to Connecticut, to South Carolina, then to boarding schools in England and New York. And finally I went to the University of Mexico for a while. How are you supposed to sound if you've followed my particular hejira?"
And after years of sounding an outsider's yowl, it is now a voice of the establishment. Buckley is close to power and to the Reagans. When Nancy Reagan is in New York, she'll stop by the Buckleys' for a meal and a chat with Pat. They talk on the phone two or three times a week. The men exchange frequent letters and occasional phone calls.
While hoisting his wine glass, Buckley praises that oft-discussed political organ: the president's brain:
"Reagan is not an intellectual in the formal sense of the word, but what he does have is a sense of the need for a set of priorities. I find Reagan able to consider a moral dilemma. Of course, he will always tend to reach first for an anecdote. But then, so does the New Testament.
"I feel safe with him as president in an apocalyptic age. I don't think the Russians have the slightest doubt that if they try to hit a first strike, Ronald Reagan would strike back with everything we have. I think Jimmy Carter would have had doubts. Even Henry Kissinger would. He told me so himself."
And on it goes. Buckley calls his visitor "Mr. Dempkin" at first, but he is not a formal man and soon ascends to first names, which, for a number of reasons, his guest appreciates. Lunch is fraught with interruptions. As he takes a few calls from lawyers, friends and, inevitably, Mrs. Bronson, Buckley pantomimes frantic apology with his right hand and left eyebrow.
And he does it beautifully.
Soon Gloria arrives with a salver heaped with hunks of smoked salmon. Buckley pours glasses of lightly carbonated white wine. That is followed by lamb shanks au poivre and a fruity, if juvenile, red, and finally, cheeses, pears and coffee.
The perfect chicken sandwich!
When wee Will Buckley was still cutting his teeth at Yale in the late 1940s, there were more definitions of conservatism than actual conservatives. Liberals tended to believe John Stuart Mill's definition, that conservatives were "the stupid party."
Conservatives were, in the eyes of liberal academics, a disorganized, nonparty of country-club bankers, old-money know-nothings and boho Babbitts. Buckley's own father was an unyielding conservative. Wealthy from Mexican and Venezuelan oil, he despised the State and blurted, on occasion, a conventional sort of prejudice.
The level of condescension among liberals was extraordinary. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. conceded that the country needed a balance of views and indeed possessed a few respectable conservatives. Jacob Javits, for instance.
After World War II, there were essentially three factions among conservative intellectuals: libertarians or classical liberals, such as Friedrich A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who emphasized resistance to state control of the economy and social life; "traditionalists" or "new conservatives" such as Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck and Robert Nisbet, who saw themselves as stays against erosion in religious values and classical education; the militant anticommunists, such as James Burnham, Frank Meyer and Whittaker Chambers, who, after their own experiences with the Left, preached against the Red menace with the verve of the converted.
But as historian George H. Nash writes, "No articulate, coordinated, self-consciously conservative intellectual force existed in the United States." Nor was there a magazine to unite the disparate voices. Certainly there were attempts, by The Freeman among others, but a fledgling magazine requires the organization and power of a single personality. Without Harold Ross, no New Yorker; without Henry Luce, no Time.
"I experienced the hunger that young and middle-aged intellectuals had for a forum," says Buckley. "There was no place to express oneself."
Conservatives would have to wait for Buckley to finish school.
In New Haven, Buckley was editing the Yale Daily News, learning from conservative mentors such as Willmoore Kendall and, above all, creating himself, shaping the attitude. Later Norman Mailer would gasp at the layered complexity of Buckley: "No other actor on earth can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice pre-school kid from next door, and the snows of yesteryear."
To be sure Buckley had been rehearsing for a lifetime. His sense of discipline and rebellion comes from his father, who was booted out of Mexico for backing the wrong dictator. The 10 Buckley children were tutored, according to a privately published family history, "with the quite simple objective that they become absolutely perfect." They were given professional instruction in: "apologetics, art, ballroom dancing, banjo, bird-watching, building boats in bottles, calligraphy, canoeing, carpentry, cooking, driving trotting horses, French, folk-dancing, golf, guitar (Hawaiian and Spanish), harmony, herb-gardening, horsemanship, history of architecture, ice-skating, mandolin, marimba, music appreciation, organ, painting, piano, playing popular music, rumba, sailing, skiing, Spanish, speech, stenography, swimming, tap-dancing, tennis, typing and wood-carving."
Quietude was never part of the litany.
"I suppose if there's any explanation for my style," he says, "it argues the kind of hauteur assumed by people who have from early on encountered entrenched opinion."
Buckley's first, full-fledged performance as Himself came in 1951 with the publication of "God and Man at Yale," a book that excoriated what he saw as the school's all-too-liberal education. The alumni went berserk. McGeorge Bundy, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly, called Buckley "a twisted and ignorant young man." On such accolades are careers launched.
"In a strange sort of way," says John Judis, who is writing Buckley's biography, "Bill was a precursor to campus rebellion." (Unlike the rebels of the '60s, Buckley enthusiastically spent several months as a CIA agent in Mexico, where his case officer was E. Howard Hunt and where, he says, he was "quite bored." He posed as a businessman and acted as a liaison to political student groups, lectured on personal hygiene and translated the memoir of a Chilean anticommunist.)
National Review established Buckley, and he, it. Launched by $130,000 of Buckley's own money and other private contributions, the magazine immediately slammed both "radical social experimentation" and the "well-fed Right."
The magazine, Buckley proclaimed in the first issue, "stands athwart history yelling Stop." There were contentious columns by Buckley on the academy, by Burnham on foreign policy, by L. Brent Bozell on domestic politics, by Karl Hess on the press. And there were internal squabbles reminiscent of a college newspaper. In fact, Russell Kirk wondered if the magazine suffered from too much "Yale undergraduate spirit."
"The National Review, above all, evolved around people," Buckley says. "The individual voices made us." Among the voices he discovered were writers as varied as Garry Wills, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, John Leonard and George Will. The potential for uproar was magnificent and not always controlled. Burnham fought with Meyer and William Schlamm left the magazine two years after he helped found it.
"A family with squabbles," Buckley says. "It could be very bad in those first years. The only really bad one we had of late was in 1972 when publisher Bill Rusher wanted to endorse McGovern over Nixon as lubricant that was hygenically necessary for the return of a real conservatism. I thought that was irresponsible."
Garry Wills, who would later have a painful separation from Buckley and the magazine in the late 1960s, writes that ". . . the source of the unifying spirit was evident. Things lit or dimmed at NR with the coming or going of that pleasantest of neighs, Bill's laugh." Buckley edited through flattery and, according to Wills, "seemed to have less desire for egotistical display than all the others."
Reaction to the magazine in liberal quarters was swift. Dwight MacDonald's essay "Scrambled Eggheads on the Right" claimed that National Review was the product of "the lumpen bourgeoisie . . . half-educated provincials . . . who responded to Huey Long, Father Coughlin and Senator McCarthy."
But MacDonald seemed to miss a crucial point. Buckley acquired such power among conservatives that he was able to isolate the cranks from his chosen mainstream.
"Bill was responsible for rejecting the John Birch Society and the other kooks who passed off anti-Semitism or some such as conservatism," says Hugh Kenner, biographer of Ezra Pound and a frequent contributor to National Review. "Without Bill -- if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else -- without him, there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country."
Buckley tosses aside his napkin when he sees Jerry the driver enter the library door frame. Time to tape two segments of "Firing Line."
Buckley slinks to the limo and begins proofreading letters he has written (with carbolic acid) to a variety of publications that have, in his view, betrayed truth, beauty or holiness. All his life he has had an unclouded vision of such things. Catholicism, conservatism and a sense of almost clannish belonging (to the Buckleys, to the Millbrook School, to Skull & Bones, to Bohemian Grove, to National Review) -- they have all provided an uncommon confidence.
"It's true," he says. "I'm comfortable with the hierarchy of values I've happened upon or had bred into me. I tend to be unquestioning about it. I don't spend a lot of time agonizing over yesterday's decisions. I've never been assaulted by heavy doubts.
"I never had a rebellious period against any of those values. But I think that's actually rather pedestrian. Most people inherit a hierarchy of values and live by them. The average Englishman probably doesn't doubt that the monarchy has its place, the House of Lords has its place, the House of Commons has its place. My iconoclasm is almost completely stylistic."
When he does change his mind, it is for "wholly empirical" reasons. For example, he came to the conclusion that the decriminalization of marijuana may not be a bad idea after he sailed out to international waters and smoked some reefer -- to no great result.
The pace at which he expresses his hierarchy of values suggests both his lack of spiritual confusion and his typing speed -- 105 words per minute on a word processor. For the readers of 325 newspapers, he writes his syndicated column "On the Right" in 20 minutes flat. He finishes his annual thrillers working two hours a day during his winter sojourns in Switzerland. He wrote a children's book, "The Temptation of Wilfred Malachey," in a couple of hours while on a recent sailing cruise from Honolulu to New Guinea. He began typing a film review of "True Confessions" while still watching the screening.
Says his friend and sailing partner Richard Clurman, "The guy can't sit still for five minutes. Even on the damn boat."
"I'm easily bored," Buckley says. "Sometimes I'll find myself in a taxi and I'll reach into my briefcase or my pocket and there will be nothing to read. I can't stand that. I'm just not any good at introspection."
For years Buckley's public image has been that of an impossibly wealthy gadfly whose greatest literary interest is the preservation of a private fortune of Getty-esque proportions. He writes for kicks, it would seem.
But that's not quite the case, according to his son, Christopher Buckley.
"My father is the self-made wealthy writer," he says. "People think he has vast wealth and his attitude is, 'Would that it were so.' Both of my parents came from wealthy families. But my father's father's wealth was greatly exaggerated and then diminished after his death. My mother's father a timber magnate in Canada left a good estate that provides her with a comfortable income. But my father generates his money. He has a best seller every year, he has a lecture fee of $10,000 to $15,000 and does about 80 a year, he writes a newspaper column, he free-lances left, right and sideways, he has a TV show, his 25 books generate royalties. He spends a lot but he earns a lot."
For decades Buckley has listened while his critics -- ignorant of his generosity to charities and friends -- tell him of course he has no sympathy for the poor, why should he?
"I think people do resent crude displays of wealth," he says. "As I do. Wealth is a matter of taste, don't you think?
"If you read 'Manchild in the Promised Land,' I just don't know what the hell it is you don't know about Harlem. 'How would you know the problems of the other half' is something I've heard a lot and I resent it."
Buckley rises from his limo and walks to makeup.
So what of William F. Buckley's problems?
Has he now been superseded by his own progeny?
Where he was once the dominant conservative voice on the editorial pages, he has been joined, if not passed, by Will, James J. Kilpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, William Safire and, the favorite of New Right "movement" conservatives, Evans and Novak. While National Review was once the singular journal of conservatism, Human Events is the magazine of choice among many in the New Right.
And "Firing Line" lacks the sting it once had. Buckley is practically recumbent while "The McLaughlin Group" has right-wingers leaping from their chairs.
"Oh, I'm delighted with George, with all of this," Buckley says. "I've always thought that the idea that there has to be one person or one show or one magazine was absurd."
And what of the idea that no one takes Buckley seriously, that he is a road show for hire -- like Gordon Liddy -- that he is a collection of literary and physical gestures -- like Truman Capote -- that he is a charming throwback -- like handkerchiefs or the queen of England?
"He has become unwillingly a dandy," argues Garry Wills. "The very thing that charms even those on the left makes grimmer types on the right distrust him. Striving for objective results, he seems only interested in theatrical effects. What a curious trial for the aspiring ideologue: By restricting himself to combat, he floats above it -- intending to strike blows, he is applauded for striking poses."
Buckley remembers when "Garry Wills said the nicest thing anybody ever said of me, that I was the nicest man he'd ever met. But I don't trust Garry's judgment anymore. Our parting is a very painful subject to me."
He acknowledges that there are those who do not take him seriously, but, he says, "one remembers what was said of G.K. Chesterton, that until he came along all the laughs were on the other side. He lightened Toryism. And arguments that were not heard before, were heard."
Buckley long since gave up the idea of holding, rather than describing, political power. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the 1965 New York mayoral race was to make an 11-syllable word of the name "Lindsay." Buckley's style at a press conference during the race, wrote his friend Murray Kempton, was like that of "an Edwardian resident commissioner reading aloud the 39 articles of the Anglican establishment to a conscript of assembled Zulus." Buckley's most ardent backer was Groucho Marx.
"I realized then," he says, "that I was not happy going through the exercises one needs to go through in order to gain power." With Cartesian swiftness he defines himself: "I am what engages me."
He did give his family a scare recently when he suffered a gastric attack that hospitalized him with chest pains while in Detroit.
"It was an intimation of mortality," Chris Buckley says. "At least it was to me. My father is a fatalist. He believes in God and figures he goes when he goes. But he's my closest friend and I know one day I'll lose him. Detroit was a dress rehearsal for that day."
For his own part, William F. Buckley remains the man whose chicken sandwich is eternally "perfect."
"I have no plans to retire from anything," he says. "National Review has become an institution. If I were run over by a truck tomorrow there is an envelope which contains instructions on what should be done with the magazine and who should run it. For the moment, the envelope remains sealed."