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Squire Willie | The Nation

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Squire Willie

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By the early 1970s Buckley's circle was devoid (except for Burnham) of the independent minds that had challenged him, honed him and, within the strange context of his earlier rebelliousness, had kept him somewhat honest. Now he was surrounded by such mushroom egotists as John Kenneth Gailbraith, Richard Clurman of Time, New York Times editors A.M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, Newsweek editor Osborn Elliott, Irving Kristol, John Chancellor, Theodore White, Daniel Moynihan and, shudder, Norman Podhoretz. Buckley actually helped organize a luncheon group made up of some of these dandies. They called themselves--are you ready for this? The Boys Club. At about the same time, Buckley joined the ultimate boys' club, the Bohemian Grove. He was sliding faster down the slippery slope.

About the Author

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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In politics, Buckley became a skilled practitioner of flagornerie. To show his admiration for Henry Kissinger, Buckley would swallow toads by the bucketful. Judis excellently details how Nixon and Kissinger did some classic co-opting of Buckley, cuddling up to him and asking his advice and taking notes on all his wise remarks--and then promptly dumping them in the wastebasket. Buckley admitted that he was being manipulated, and apparently loved it.

When Buckley complained about some of the Administration's policies, Kissinger would get him aside and say, in effect, "Hey, I'm going to prove we're right by letting you in on some R-E-A-L secrets, but you must promise not to reveal them." It was Kissinger's favorite way to sucker big-name journalists. Others knew what was going on and Buckley became a joke around the Administration. David Keene, Vice President Spiro Agnew's top aide, put it this way: "Bill was very con-able, partly because he did want to be in, and Kissinger gave everybody that he talked to in those days the sense that they were indeed 'in.' "

That desire was Buckley's death. The irritating brat who once had made a career of being out now wanted with all his frozen heart to be in.

He passed without a belch into the bowels of the conservative establishment, and, along the way, Buckley's morality as a journalist, never high, disappeared altogether. When I say "never" high, I mean you can go back to his days as head of the Yale newspaper and find that even then he was using the journal under his command as a propaganda device; in that instance, he was a stooge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was trying to intimidate left-wing professors. At the National Review he continued to stooge for the F.B.I., and broadened his usefulness to stooge for the C.I.A. and every tramp actor on the right-wing circuit. Friends with integrity began to fall away. In 1971 Garry Wills, probably the brightest talent ever to work at the National Review and a vigorous advocate of Catholic morality, became so disgusted with the magazine's ideological vulgarities that he wrote Buckley, "I think the magazine's standards of veracity and honor are scandalously low." The Buckley-Wills friendship, once close, completely fell apart when Wills suggested in a column that with four ex-C.I.A. agents on its staff, there was reason to wonder if the National Review wasn't an agency operation.

Among the several reasons for thinking so was the National Review's precarious finances. When the magazine was launched in 1955, with $290,000 allegedly raised from 125 investors, Buckley said it would probably lose $210,000 in its first year, $100,000 in its second, would hope to break even in its third year and be earning $100,000 in its fourth. Actually, the trend was exactly opposite: a loss of $252,000 in 1956, of $292,000 in 1957, and a staggering $388,000 in 1958. As of June 30, 1958, the National Review's assets were about $270,000 and its debts almost $1 million.

In Danger on the Right, Arnold Forstar and Benjamin Epstein note these numbers and add, "Exactly how these tremendous losses were met is not known." It is a point that Judis does not clear up.

Buckley says he joined the C.I.A. in 1951, not long after graduating from Yale, and, under the cover of an export-import business, served in Mexico City briefly before getting bored and quitting. He remained friends for life with his case officer, Howard Hunt, of Watergate fame. Because of that friendship, Buckley at one time knew more about the Watergate scandal than any other journalist in America, but he revealed nothing.

Whether or not Buckley was a lifelong operator for the C.I.A., as some think, is a matter of little importance; he may have, as he claims, quit soon after joining. If he had stayed on the payroll he could have given no more support to the agency, and given it in no more distasteful a fashion than he did as a "journalist." When Gen. Augusto Pinochet ousted Chile's President, Salvador Allende, in 1973 and proceeded to kill, jail or exile one out of every hundred Chileans, the National Review played this up as a wonderful development; moreover, maintaining his magazine's usual standard of objectivity, Buckley hired a member of the Pinochet government as his correspondent in Chile.

Quite a few National Review editors and writers had their way paid on junkets to Chile by the illegally operated Chilean lobby Buckley helped found and which he served as an adviser. (Judis tells us that Buckley himself had already set the standard by going on expenses-paid trips to Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan, Franco's Spain, and South Africa and Rhodesia.) Final proof of Buckley's quality as a journalist came when he guided the National Review in an all-out campaign to discredit Orlando Letelier (a former official of the Allende government assassinated by Chilean secret police in Washington in 1976) by suggesting again and again that Letelier was a Cuban or Soviet agent, although he must have known that the Chilean lobby's own investigator had reported there was no evidence that Letelier was any such thing.

When I think of the many years that Buckley was a fan, if not an agent, of the C.I.A., and when I think of the many influential liberals and moderates who permitted him to lure them into "friendly" relationships, I imagine the many file drawers at the agency that may be crammed to the brim with his snitching. Blair Clark, once head of CBS News and also once editor of this magazine, says Flora Lewis told him the following story of "friendship."

Right after World War II, she and her husband Sydney Gruson were newspaper correspondents stationed in Mexico City. "She said there was a charming young man living with his new wife in an apartment near them. He was fresh out of Yale, studying there or doing something connected with the family oil business (I forget which). She said he often used to drop by to talk--about everything under the sun from gossip to philosophy and why the world was the way it was. Many long evenings of conviviality and chat.

"The Grusons traveled around Central America on their beats and they would routinely check in at the local U.S. Embassies to get the scoop. They began to notice that the security people in certain embassies were taking an unusual interest in them, and once or twice things they had said about political matters (but not in public) were quoted back to them--on Marxism, chances of democratic development here and there, the cold war, etc. They thought it odd that their thinking was so well known to C.I.A. types, and they finally figured out (and, I think, once were shown proof) that the source of the paper trail in the Latino world was entirely none other than their charming young buddy from Yale, W.F. Buckley Jr.

"Now, the Grusons, since divorced, were always extremely upwardly mobile and I have never heard it said that they ever contemplated throwing bombs. [Gruson retired not long ago as vice chair of the New York Times Corporation.] Which did not prevent the young C.I.A. agent Buckley from sending along his 'intelligence' reports on them, through government channels."

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