In September 1962, two days before the Floyd Patterson−Sonny Liston heavyweight championship in Chicago, a savvy promoter brought together a pair of adversaries for an altogether different kind of bout.
What flyers billed as the “Debate of the Year” (“The Conservative Mind clashes with the Hip Mind for the first time in a no holds barred discussion”) drew more than 3,000 paying spectators. In one corner was William F. Buckley, Jr., patrician conservative author and commentator and founder of National Review, while in the other stood Norman Mailer, hotheaded and controversial novelist and social critic. They hadn’t met before facing off onstage, and while some of their rhetorical attacks were below the belt – Buckley suggested that Mailer’s sole interest was “the world’s genital glands” – they left Chicago interested in seeing more of each other.
The relationship that developed over the ensuing years is the subject of Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties, the new book by historian Kevin M. Schultz. Let’s observe from the outset that the book’s subtitle is a Mailer-worthy overstatement. One could argue that Buckley and Mailer individually shaped the tumultuous decade during which they met, but there is no evidence in this book (or, presumably, anywhere else) that their friendship did.
It must also be noted that the friendship itself is something of a flimsy frame to hang a book on. The description of the relationship as “difficult” came from Mailer in a 1966 letter to Buckley begging off a dinner invitation.
“As much as I miss you and a certain wife of yours for the pleasure of a fine evening, I’m not so certain we can have it now, with Viet Nam to pass the wine,” Mailer wrote, alluding to their opposing perspectives on the conflict. “That’s the trouble with bad wars. They spoil the continued existence of difficult friendships.”
Much of the quoted correspondence, though fond, is similarly apologetic, owing less to political disagreement than to lack of availability: “I am terribly sorry, but I just plain don’t have any time at all”; “I must, I fear, decline your splendid invitation.” At one point Buckley asks Mailer to blurb his new book, and Mailer replies that he’s too busy but can offer a generic endorsement without reading the manuscript. Buckley curtly declines.
While he never establishes that the two were “trusted confidantes,” as the book jacket proclaims, Schultz is considerably more successful in using the intersections and divergences in the two men’s thinking to illuminate, often entertainingly, the cultural and political upheaval of the sixties.
Despite their obvious differences, Buckley and Mailer had much in common. They were both Ivy Leaguers, had both served in the army during World War II, and were writers whose first books launched them into fame as celebrity intellectuals at a young age (Mailer with 1948’s "The Naked and the Dead", Buckley with 1951’s "God and Man at Yale"). They were also somewhat farcical New York City mayoral candidates, Buckley in 1965, Mailer in 1969. (The former, asked what he would do if he won, famously replied, “Demand a recount.”)
More significantly, in Schultz’s words, they felt “a joint disgust at the central assumptions that dominated postwar America from the 1940s to the mid-1960s,” most notably the period’s cultural conformity and its faith in technocratic bureaucracy and government-supported corporate capitalism.
They of course attacked the center from different flanks: the anti-establishment Mailer exalted individual freedom, while the zealous Cold Warrior Buckley argued for a return to the traditional anchors of “the laws of God and ... the wisdom of our ancestors.” In the short term, Mailer’s viewpoint prevailed, but as the decade grew more violent, Schultz observes, its “mindless liberation” turned into “something he wasn’t quite comfortable with.”
The author clearly admires Mailer’s searching, artistic nature (at one point during his mayoral campaign, Mailer explained that he was running “to see where my own ideas lead”), while he several times refers to Buckley as a mere “salesman” for the conservative cause.
Buckley himself once said of Mailer, “He’s a genius and I’m not.” But Buckley was playing a different, and longer, game. The salesman never wavered in his belief in his product. His movement building, which involved advancing an uneasy Republican coalition of libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists, saw its payoff in the election of Ronald Reagan. The decade Buckley most significantly shaped was not the sixties but the eighties.