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Christopher Buckley on His Father's Old Nemesis, Gore Vidal

My father, the late William F. Buckley, Jr. had a bit of history with the now-late Gore Vidal. In what actually might be the quintessential unscripted TV exchange, Vidal called him a “crypto-nazi.” WFB returned the compliment by calling him a “queer.” This amidst the tear gas and noise of the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention.

Harold Hayes, the legendary editor of Esquire asked both gentlemen to write about the episode. Their articles are included in the anthology, Smiling through the Apocalypse, and are well worth reading. Hayes transgressed on the arrangement whereby each had mutual right of veto over items in the other’s essay, resulting in a long lawsuit by WFB against Esquire, and an ultimately victorious out-of-court settlement.

When WFB died, in 2008, I found in his study, more cluttered than King Tut’s tomb, a file cabinet bursting to the seams, labeled “Vidal Legal.” Into the dumpster it went, and I still remember the sigh of relief upon heaving it in.

WFB’s body was still warm (I exaggerate only slightly) when Vidal rendered his obsequies: "RIP WFB—in hell." It was a thorny wreath indeed that he laid on the grave: “a world-class liar,” “a hysterical queen.” I got the hell and liar bits, but I’m still scratching my noggin over “hysterical queen.” As my college-age son would say, “Whatever.”

Vidal also took pains in that valedictory to call me “creepy” and “brain-dead.” Who am I to disagree? As the saying goes, De gustibus, non disputandum est. At the time, though, I couldn’t resist pointing out that the first line in Vidal’s most recent memoir was: “As I move—I hope gracefully—toward the door marked Exit..”" Ahem.

Fun aside, one was left to wonder what it was within him that animated such hatred in him, at such a late stage? I speculated that it might be envy over the outpouring of respect and admiration for WFB—from all corners, by the way, of the ideological map.

Why was Vidal’s cauldron of bile still set, not on “simmer” but on high in his final years? WFB had—to my knowledge—not once opened his mouth or uncapped his pen against his old adversary since the early 1970’s. I was present, on a number of occasions when WFB was accosted by an interviewer or lunch guest, asking for comment about Vidal. Without exception, he demurred—and demurral was emphatically not WFB’s default position. One time I remember vividly was a TV show. WFB deflected the question with a wan smile and almost penitential mildness: “I guess Gore Vidal always brings out the best in me.” So why—one wonders—the final fuck-you upon WFB’s death?

In Charles McGrath’s fine eulogy in today’s New York Times, he quotes Vidal (on Vidal’s always-favorite topic, namely, Vidal): “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” And so the water remained, to the end.

My, alas, also late friend, Christopher Hitchens had history with Vidal. His fine collection of essays, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, published in 2000, bore this single endorsement on its back cover: “I have been asked whether I wish to nominate a successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delfino. I have decided to name Christopher Hitchens.”

This was, truly, blurbing of the gods. Dauphin! The Sun King on his throne, extending a silk-gloved hand to be kissed by the brightest blade in the court. For years, I teased Christopher without mercy. “And how is the dauphin today?” But I acknowledged then—and to an extent, still—that this was a perfectly condign vernissage. I’ve often referred to Christopher as "our Gore Vidal," and I say it without irony. Vidal’s mastery of the essay was supreme, just as Christopher’s mastery of the form was in my generation.

Their once close relationship was not to last, largely due to 9/11. For Christopher, this was a hinge moment, when Islamofascism (his coinage, I believe) revealed itself to be the prime enemy of civilization. For Vidal, it was simply a chickens-coming-home-to-roost moment, another—yawn—predictable instance of deserved U.S. imperial blowback.

This languorous what else could we expect? shrug was too much for Christopher. Nine years later, when his former beau ideal’s mind had terminally succumbed to paranoia, he wrote in Vanity Fair: “If it’s true ... that we were all changed by September 11, 2001, it’s probably truer of Vidal that it made him more the way he already was, and accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant.”

The crackpot strain included Vidal’s persistent—and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, ultimately tedious—charge that FDR had incited the Japanese to start a war and contrived to conceal intelligence about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor.

More vile, in my own view, was Vidal’s friendship with and championing of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. Vidal wrote of him that he was “a noble boy.” Remember that phrase next time you see the famous photograph of the fireman cradling the dying body of the infant Baylee Almon. But we must allow Vidal this: He wasn’t kidding when he said that under the ice was cold water.

So despite all the gorgeous writing that he left us—and I have numerous volumes of it on my own study shelves—it’s a bit hard to say, “Now cracks a noble heart.” The evidence suggests Vidal never deserted his demons and took them with him to the grave. Though I draw some hope from McGrath’s obituary, which concludes on a note that toward the end perhaps the cold water within Vidal had ever so slightly warmed.

A final footnote, and to my knowledge, not widely, if at all, known. If you look closely at the footage of the 1968 TVcontretemps between WFB and Vidal, you’ll see WFB trying to rise out of his chair at the moment of maximum heat. If you look very closely, you’ll see him physically straining, but something holding him back.

A few days before, he was sailing in Long Island Sound when a Coast Guard cutter zoomed past his sailboat, knocking him to the deck, breaking his collarbone. During the Chicago debates, he was wearing a clavicle brace. It’s possible that the brace prevented the moment from being truly iconic.

Christopher Buckley is the author of 15 books, most recently the novel “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?”  

photo by Carl van Vechten; used under creative commons.