Since Robert Spencer posted a veiled threat today to attack me physically (quote: “Buckley’s sage advice to Gore Vidal comes to mind at this point”), here’s an interesting article that deals with what Spencer calls Buckley’s “sage advice:” Ego & Argument — The Happy Warrior: William F. Buckley, Jr.
Note that Buckley himself thought of this incident as a serious failure on his part. It’s quite revealing that Robert Spencer considers it “sage advice” to lose one’s cool, threaten violence, and give voice to an ugly prejudice.
Buckley’s most famous debate occurred on ABC television in 1968 amid the tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago. His opponent was Gore Vidal. The two men objected to each other profoundly and in every regard. The chase: Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley threatened to sock the insouciant “queer” “in [his] goddamn face.” Buckley was later ashamed of his outburst and published a post-mortem of the debate in Esquire in 1969. As Vidal put it, “having indicated that he lost the debates to me by ‘losing his cool,’ Buckley now hopes to regain by writing what he lost through performing.” As Buckley himself put it, it was “an emotional explosion which, it is said, rocked television. Certainly it rocked me, and I am impelled to write about it.”
In 15,000 words, Buckley exhaustively details everything Vidal had ever done to irk or offend him. See how many provocations he endured with a mother’s patience! See how he remained silent in the face of Vidal’s queenly green-room preening! See how he tried in vain to elevate the discussion while Vidal pulled it down down down until it wallowed in the most odious puddle of insult and indignity! After many pages, we arrive at the ABC studio that fateful night to behold our hero quivering under the weight of Vidal’s lies and itching terribly from the ambient fairy dust. And then it comes. The spark. The word.  Nazi. And Buckley freaks.
The famous cracking of the Buckley persona came not because Vidal had gone too far in attacking Republicans or capitalism or America. Not even because he had told Buckley to shut up or called him “the enemy of the people.” Many frustrated opponents had gotten lippy with Buckley and caused no ripple. But in calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi, Vidal made the one accusation Buckley could not abide: that under his fine jacket and his neatly combed hair, he was one of the kooks after all.
Indeed, Vidal affirmed that the exposure of Buckley as a kook (more accurately, a cuckoo) had been a long-caressed dream. In his response to Buckley’s Esquire piece (for which Buckley sued him and won), Vidal recounted Buckley’s explosion thus: “on Wednesday, August 28, at nine-thirty o’clock, in full view of ten million people, the little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions of others, to get a good look at. I think those few seconds of madness, to use his word, were well worth a great deal of patient effort on my part.”
Ego & Argument contends that our arguments are proxies for ourselves—that when people attack our ideas they indirectly attack our credibility, intelligence, morality, and worth, and so cause us emotional pain. William F. Buckley embodied a strange inversion of this general rule; he had invested so much in his gentlemanly persona—and implicitly positioned this persona as evidence of the sanity and reasonableness of his political ideals—that an attack on him personally became the most violent assault possible on the principles he held dear. To impugn Buckley’s human decency and political sanity—not just call him an ass, but to call him a Nazi —was not an ad hominem irrelevance. It was to say that the person Buckley claimed to embody, the civilized intellectual who was also a passionate conservative, was not only a fiction, but an impossibility. “If it can be said about me that I’m a crypto-Nazi,” Buckley wrote to his friend John Kenneth Galbraith, who urged him not to sue Vidal, “then it can be said of every vigorous American conservative.” After years of fighting his way into the mainstream with a broad vocabulary and a dandy touch, beating back the likes of George Wallace with his free hand all the while, Buckley was being cast into the moral wilderness. By a queer, no less.
(Hat tip: Euler.)