Monday, March 03, 2008

Buckley vs. Vidal (Part 3)

Continuing from Fred Kaplan's Gore Vidal:

By the time they appeared together in September 1962 on the Susskind show, the personal pot was boiling, at least from Buckley's point of view. He was especially ill at ease about Vidal's and other people's references to his dogmatically Catholic, ultraconservative family background, with hints of dark views and unattractive prejudices. Rumors had surfaced that his father was anti-Semitic. One family incident apparently pained and worried him. In May 1944 three of his sisters, with two other adolescent girls, had desecrated the Reverend Frances James Cotter's Episcopalian church in Sharon. Apparently Buckley, Sr., had fulminated in his daughter's presence against the minister's wife, a real-estate agent, for selling a house in Sharon, a city known for its restrictive covenants, to a Jewish lawyer. The girls may have thought they were doing their father's bidding, though, according to William, Jr., his father and mother were in South Carolina at the time of the incident. With sexually suggestive cartoons from The New Yorker and centerfold Vargas girls from Esquire, they smeared and decorated some of the church pews and prayer books. The outraged Cotters and other parishioners reported the hate incident to the police, who soon, tipped off by a Buckley employee, had incontrovertible proof that the daughters had done the deed. William, Jr., himself was not involved. He was at the time at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Humiliated, perhaps ashamed, even penitent, the young Buckley girls were lightly punished by the local court. Buckley, Sr., severely admonished his daughters for the shame they had brought on the family. Soon the court record was moved from Sharon to Hartford. Whatever Buckley, Sr.'s, view on Jews and his impact on his children, the family was eager to put the incident behind them. Later, William Buckley denied that the incident had anything to do with anti-Semitism at all. It was "utterly unrelated to any real estate transaction in which the rector's wife was engaged." The record suggests otherwise. Also, having lived companionably for years with the nearby Episcopal church and the Cotter family, why would the young ladies suddenly have decided at this time that the church deserved to be desecrated? Devoted to his sisters, William Buckley, Jr., hoped, for their sake as well as his own, that the incident would receive as little publicity as possible in the future.

However, to his distress, he learned in March 1959 that the actress Jayne Meadows, the daughter of Reverend Frances James Meadows Cotter, who had been witness to some of the events of 1944, had at a television studio "regaled" CBS reporter Mike Wallace with an account of the incident. Like her husband, Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows abhorred Buckley's radical conservatism. "Evidently the entire studio was your audience," a pained and angry Buckley wrote to her. "Is it your intention to publicize the episode indefinitely? Or is there a point, say on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its happening, when you will feel that the story of an evening's aberration by three of your childhood friends has earned retirement from an active role in your repertory? Do you, in recounting the story, remark the fact that my three sisters, all of whom you knew well, had distinguished careers in school and college, untouched by scandal of any sort; and that not a man or woman who has ever known them, then or now, has ever imputed to any of them a trace of malice or bias?" With a talent for taking other people's rhetorical simplifications and shorthand attacks with serious literalness, he was aggressively self-defensive about his family. Perhaps the Sharon incident had made him especially sensitive about what he considered personal attacks, and less than sharp when drawing the line between personal and political rhetoric. (When in September 1964, on a radio talk show, he allowed his audience to think he believed that American Jews were in general historically prone to be sympathetic to Communism, he gave those aware of the Sharon incident further reason to think him at a minimum insensitive to Jewish concerns and, worse, prone to making racial generalizations.) At the same time the National Review was becoming notorious for biting, brutal, often painfully insulting headlines and editorials many readers thought racist. Either there was a moral blind spot or a self-indulgent fascination with the language of exaggeration. Also, it had begun to be clear to those who disagreed with Buckley that he considered threats to sue for libel an appropriate extension of open debate. In October 1961 he had implied to the publisher of the New York Times that he might sue the newspaper for libel, a threat he made against numbers of opponents in the late fifties and now in the sixties as well, if the Times did not stop misrepresenting the National Review. "Your reporter wrote as though it were the organ of a Nazi-like movement which included Lincoln Rockwell and the California anti-semites; now you suggest that it is the right-wing counterpart of Communism." Whether or not the Times reporter was in any way culpable, Buckley characteristically counterattacked aggressively. His own rhetorical simplifications he avidly defended as incontrovertibly true. As a television entertainer he was deadly serious, and potentially lethal.