Review

William F. Buckley Jr., Norman Mailer: An odd-couple relationship

Review: Kevin M. Schultz's 'Buckley and Mailer' offers insight into intellectual culture of an era

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

From the Establishment?

Don't pal with Norman Mailer,

Don't sup with the Reds.

Please give them up for Lent.

Kevin Schultz's new book explores the odd-couple relationship between right-wing Buckley and 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, many of 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 he was 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 when Mailer 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 in 1980.

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 from the state and reorganize itself into a series of quasi-anarchist communes. And what influence Mailer had on leftist activists was destroyed when he became "a prime target of the women's liberation movement," as Schultz puts it, in the early 1970s.

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 and Mailer also shared — the excerpts from his fiction that appear in the book are so cringe-inducingly awful that the present-day reader may wonder why Mailer was ever taken seriously as a novelist.

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 nor Mailer was 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 view of a tumultuous decade.

Kabaservice is the author, most recently, of "Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party."

Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties

By Kevin M. Schultz
W.W. Norton.: 400 pp., $28.95

 

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