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Squire Willie | The Nation

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Squire Willie

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Buckley's attitude toward homosexuals threw a garish light across some of the most publicized portions of his career. Why did he feel the way he did about them? How exactly did he view them? Was he in any way compensating, and, if so, for what? Judis says that "in the early portraits that his parents commissioned, Bill could be mistaken for a pretty little girl." And he quotes one of Buckley's childhood friends as recalling, "A lot of us thought he was a little bit effeminate." Yet other recollections picture him as not so much a sissy as just bitchy. Grown up, he apparently displayed (according to some friends) none of the phony macho stuff that might hint at a cover-up. Murray Kempton, a longstanding friend of Buckley, once noted that the private Buckley regularly showed the benign "qualities we like to admire as womanly." When Buckley was in officers' candidate school, he stopped his platoon in the midst of maneuvers to pick a flower (costing them demerits)--a gesture, it's true, that might be associated with a Wildean character, but with Buckley it probably just represented his proper contempt for military authority.

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Robert Sherrill
Robert Sherrill, a frequent and longtime contributor to The Nation, was formerly a reporter for the Washington Post. He...

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Buckley's most celebrated marathon quarrel was with Gore Vidal. Their original falling out came as a result of an evening on The Jack Paar Show in 1962. On that occasion Buckley called Vidal a "philosophical degenerate." (Sometimes, of course, you can't tell Buckley's enemies from his friends without a program. Norman Mailer, whom Buckley counted as a friend, had been favored with the designation "moral pervert.") That feud simmered along until 1968, when Buckley and Vidal were hired by ABC, allegedly as commentators for the Democratic National Convention but in fact as spiteful clowns who were expected to spit on each other. And did. The spitting reached a climax in a famous exchange, Vidal calling Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley calling Vidal a "queer." Then, losing his cool entirely and threatening to sock Vidal "in the goddam face and you'll stay plastered," Buckley demanded that Vidal "stop making allusions of Naziism to somebody who was in the last war and fought the Nazis," a comical upgrading of his role in the Army.

After the Buckley-Vidal encounter, Buckley's wife, Pat, howled in pain, "Two hundred million Americans think William F. Buckley is a screaming homosexual and I've got to do something about it." Why did she think so? And what exactly did she have in mind to correct the impression--a heterosexual demonstration on the tube?

Then Buckley and Vidal really started rolling in the gutter, or, to be more precise, in Esquire, where charges and implications from both sides whirled around the genie of homosexuality, and wound up with Buckley suing Vidal and Esquire. But, in Judis's words, "fearful of a jury trial" (why "fearful"? did he think he would lose? we aren't told), Buckley settled with Esquire and dropped his suit against Vidal. Esquire paid a piddling $15,000 in cash and agreed to buy $100,000 in National Review ads, which in itself was a kind of corporate act of perversion.

What are we to make of all that? That Buckley hated "queers"? Earlier he had described Vidal as a "pink queer." Perhaps it was the pinkness that Buckley hated. He certainly didn't hate all "queers." He was, as their mountainous correspondence shows, extremely fond of the gray "queer" Whittaker Chambers. He was an admirer of the purple "queer" Roy Cohn, and of the yellow "queer" Bob Bauman, whom he had considered a comrade in arms since the days when they worked together setting up Y.A.F. And special mention should be made of Buckley's strange support of the beige "queer," Al Lowenstein. In 1976 he endorsed Lowenstein, a liberal Democrat, against incumbent Republican John Wydler, despite the fact that the endorsement gravely hurt Buckley's brother in his tough fight for re-election to the Senate against Daniel Moynihan. Buckley endorsed Lowenstein again in 1978.

Indeed, as Judis notes, there was the notable "presence of several homosexuals among his closest associates." Simply because Buckley proposed that homosexuals with AIDS be tattooed on upper forearm and ass, does not mean he didn't like them. He treated all his friends that way. It's really surprising that he didn't propose having John Kenneth Galbraith and his other liberal friends tattooed on the forehead, to stop the spread of their plague.

Buckley's overblown legal battles had a tendency to end on an almost comical note. In 1980 the weirdos at Liberty Lobby sued National Review for linking it to Lyndon LaRouche. NR countersued, charging that the Lobby had libeled it by suggesting that the magazine advocated child molestation and was a close ally of the American Nazis. Liberty Lobby's lawsuit was thrown out of court, but National Review's countersuit went to trial. Mark Lane, Liberty Lobby's lawyer, told the jury that "National Review since its inception has been a racist, pro-Nazi, pro-Fascist publication. It has no good name. That is what this case is all about.... You must determine what the good name of National Review is worth. The figure '2 cents' keeps coming into my mind." Considering the heavy judgments that are usually made to the winner in such cases, it can be assumed that the jury sort of agreed with Lane about NR's "good name." The magazine had demanded $16 million in damages; the jury gave it $1,001. What really made Buckley furious over the outcome, though, was the fact that outfits like The New York Times and Newsweek discussed the case as a fight between equals, just a couple of yowling alley cats on the right.

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