Lessons from Buckley: Race and the American Right

Curator's Note

After William F. Buckley, Jr. died in 2008, commentators lamented that with him died the last gasp of civility within conservative media, and all that remained were the loutish and infantile harangues of the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.  Limbaugh however eulogized Buckley on his radio show, claiming Buckley as an inspiration and progenitor; just the year before, the Media Research Center – a conservative watchdog group founded by Buckley’s nephew L. Brent Bozell III – honored Limbaugh with the William F. Buckley, Jr. Award for Media Excellence, anticipating the line of inheritance that Limbaugh himself would draw after Buckley died.  Buckley, however, was an “old right” media celebrity, in contrast to the “new right” icons of Limbaugh, Beck, and O’Reilly. His erudite demeanor, evident here in his exchange with Black Panther Huey Newton, could not be more different than the tone adopted on conservative talk radio and Fox News today.

By the time Newton appeared in 1973 on The Firing Line Buckley, according to John Judis, had softened his public persona, not only because his aggressive and acerbic debating style had discouraged guests from appearing on his show, but also because of his lingering embarrassment over how he had behaved during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when on national television he had threatened to “sock” Gore Vidal in the “goddam face.” By this point, Buckley also had tempered his views on American race relations.  Like his contemporary conservatives, Buckley opposed congressional and juridical remedies to segregation as an illegitimate exercise of federal power.  In an infamous 1957 editorial in his National Review, Buckley affirmed his belief in the white community as the “advanced race,” whose actions in suppressing the political rights of African Americans are legitimate, since the “claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” 

By the early 1970s Buckley had shelved his overt racism, though he still opposed to legal remedies to discrimination.  As he told an incredulous John Lewis on a 1972 episode of The Firing Line, he believed the path towards racial equality should rely on the resources of black Americans and the “good nature” of white Americans. The continuation of segregation and overt acts of oppression, according to Buckley, did not warrant state action, for the violence that such intervention would do to the concept of liberty outweighed the actual violence enacted on black citizens.  Unsurprisingly, Buckley was no friend to the Black Panthers, or the vision of black power they espoused, and he attacked Newton in particular in a 1968 column, whose title sums up Buckley’s view of the movement: “Creeping Black Racism.”

In this light, it’s admittedly bizarre that Buckley and Newton would seem to have a friendly conversation about “revolution,” though Buckley’s hesitation in answering the question also speaks to the fundamental brilliance behind Newton posing it: who would conservatives — who extol tradition, see hierarchies as natural and inevitable, reject reforms intended to solve social and economic injustices, believe in gradual rather than abrupt change  – have fought with during the Revolution, and in what ways can they plausibly claim the Founding Fathers as their own?  Buckley here, though identifying with the cause of George Washington, is clearly a long way from today’s Tea Partiers and the revolutionary spirit in which they cloak themselves.

But it’s the relationship between conservative media personalities and the issue of civil rights that most interests me. While in this episode, Buckley provided a platform for Newton, who over the course of the hour will dominate the conversation, Buckley used his program, his magazine, and his columns to condemn the means by which civil rights and black power activists alike sought racial justice.  These days, Limbaugh claims that he is the true inheritor of Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision of racial equality he articulated, while simultaneously singing songs about “Barack, the Magic Negro,” .  Similarly, in his opening credits Glenn Beck includes an image of King, along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as a patriot in whose footsteps Beck himself follows, while identifying Obama as the primary culprit of racism and race-baiting in the contemporary United States. 

Their logic not only does tremendous violence to the goals of civil rights, and profoundly mischaracterizes King and his objectives, but essentially rewrites the relationship between conservatives and race relations emblematized by Buckley, whitewashing how conservatives stood as impediments to, rather than abettors of, the reforms King worked to achieve.  While Buckley believed that gradually, through the conversion of hearts and minds, racial equality would arrive, Beck and Limbaugh perpetuate not only the fiction that it is here, but they themselves are the embodiments of the color blind society that the civil rights movement allegedly produced.  Though I’m on the fence about which approach is the more harmful and dangerous, at least Buckley performed his with a bit of civility.

 

Comments

Jeffrey P. Jones's picture

Buckley versus Fox

 As condescending, biased, and patronizing as Buckley’s introductory comments are, the central difference between his enterprise and that which we find today (even with George Will) is that he is willing to hold a conversation.  George Will can’t be bothered (and would rather have his nose hairs plucked). O’Reilly simply uses the other person for his performance.  Beck and Limbaugh can’t even do it or their heads will explode (see Limbaugh’s only attempt in a TV tryout where he gets pummeled by the audience). I think Mike Huckabee is one of the only conservative stars on TV who is really capable of trying to have a conversation (but again, he simply trots out talking points for his 2012 prez run).

I’m less interested in whether we deem this as "civil" as I am in the exchange of ideas or holding a conversation in which Buckley lets the other person finish. As much as I love Jon Stewart and the conversations he holds, he is also guilty of not letting the person with whom he disagrees finish his or her sentence. That obviously says something about TV, for sure, but in the age of the web (in which The Daily Show posts the unedited interviews), it’s also egregious. 

Tim Raphael's picture

Huey Newton or Little Richard

Watching the clip of Buckley and Newton I was reminded of the introduction of Greil Marcus’ MYSTERY TRAIN, in which he describes Little Richard’s rant on The Dick Cavett show in the early 70s. The conservative New Yorker theater critic, John Simon, has been relentlessly attacking LOVE STORY author, Erick Segal, for contributing to the decline of Western civilization. Simon’s scathing contempt and unwillingness to let Little Richard enter the conversation has aroused the singer’s ire. Segal’s mention of the history of art brings Little Richard to his feet:

"WHY, YES, IN THE WHOLE HISTORY OF AAAART! THAT’S RIGHT! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! WHAT DO YOU KNOW, MR. CRITIC? WHY, WHEN THE CREEDENCE CLEARWATER PUT OUT WITH THEIRTRAVELINBANDEVERYBODY SAY WHEEE-OOO BUT I KNOW IT CAUSE THEY ONLY DOINGLONG TALL SALLYJUST LIKE THE BEATLES ANDTHESTONESANDTOMJONESANDELVIS — I AM ALL OF IT, LITTLE RICHARD HIMSELF, VERY TRULY THE GREATEST, THE HANDSOMEST, AND NOW TO YOU (to Segal, who now appears to be on the floor) AND TO YOU (to Simon, who looks to Cavett as if to say, really old man, this has been fun, but this, ah, fellow is becoming a bit much, perhaps a commercial is in order?), I HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK, MYSELF, I AM A WRITER, I HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK AND IT’S CALLED —

" ‘HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED BUT HE LOST WHAT HE HAD’! THAT’S IT! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED BUT HE LOST WHAT HE HAD! THE STORY OF MY LIFE. CAN YOU DIG IT? THAT’S MY BOY LITTLE RICHARD, SURE IS. OO MAH SOUL!"

I found myself wondering which form of cultural revolution—Newton’s or Little Richard’s—Buckley and Simon feared the most.

Gwyneth Adams's picture

Common sense says that in the

nice

Heather Hendershot's picture

Buckley the conversationalist?

I certainly agree with Jeff that Buckley was committed to engaging in conversation—very different from today’s shouting matches.  What is really interesting, though, is that Buckley fails not infrequently.  He’s got everything sorted out, with his introductory remarks scripted and attached to his clipboard, and always a five-dollar-word at the ready, but sometimes his erudition is simply a bad match with his guests—whether those guests are conservative or liberal. 

When Limbaugh was Buckley’s guest in 1992 he never fully engaged with Buckley’s questions.  And, indeed, why would anyone expect that a monologuist like Limbaugh would make a good interview subject?  Even worse was his 1967 interview with Christian Anticommunism Crusade founder Fred Schwarz.  Schwarz is obsessed with citing Marxist-Leninist doctrine (which he has learned by rote), while Buckley tries to talk about communism’s actual—as opposed to theoretical—practice.  The overall impression is that Buckley can think on his feet but Schwarz cannot.

In Barry Goldwater, of course, he finds a good intellectual match, in 1966.  But, really, in many ways Buckley was a bad interviewer because interviewers need to be more flexible, to adapt to the mindset of their guests.  Cavett was certainly more adept at this—he knew that you didn’t interview Mel Brooks the same way you interviewed Lester Maddox!

Jeffrey P. Jones's picture

Goo d Point

Actually, Heather is correct.  Buckley really never was interested in "conversation" as much as making the guests he disagreed with look bad. He had his strategy mapped out, for sure. Perhaps what this clip reminds me of is the pace of television at the time, and programs like this, but also others—Dick Cavett also jumps to mind—where they featured a variety of guests and often let them talk for more than 10 seconds!

Jeffrey P. Jones's picture

one other correction

 I guess I should have said, at least Buckley is willing to "engage" the other in a public space—to at least let the other person have his or her say.  That is certainly something that is very hard to find with the conservative stars today.

Buckley

It’s true that Buckley is not a stellar interviewer.  He and Bozell became friends as debating partners at Yale and he brought this style with him to The Firing Line.  The goal for him was less to engage and more to win, though as Jeff points out he gave his guests time to speak, without interruption, before he posed questions to them.  He later wrote about this interview with Newton as one of the more frustrating he’d done, complaining that Newton was largely unintelligible.  Heather’s comment is so germane here, because essentially what Buckley was saying was that he could not on the spot respond to, and cleverly refute, Newton’s points.

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