William F. Buckley's Porn TradeS


Slightly late to the game of fond remembrances of the late William F. Buckley, Jr. is Fox News correspondent James Rosen's essay on how the founding editor of National Review was a frequent contributor to Playboy. Many of the details Rosen digs up about this sideline beat, so to speak, are fun, but the association isn't quite as counterintuitive or shocking as he'd like to think it is. "Yes, in a union difficult to imagine involving any of today's leading conservatives...the bard of East 73rd Street wrote for Hugh Hefner's oft-vilified Playboy, on and off, for almost four decades, on topics ranging from 'the Negro male' and Nikita Khrushchev to Oprah Winfrey, the Internet, and Y2K." That's a poor use of the word "bard," and also an impaired judgment. P.J. O'Rourke and Christopher Buckley have both written for Playboy and they're "leading conservatives," if not shrieking TV banshees like Ann Coulter. But even back in 1963, when Buckley the Elder made his debut in a transcribed debate he'd had with Norman Mailer, the byline and the magazine were actually rather suited to each other in a strange aesthetic way.

If Sam Tanenhaus' forthcoming "definitive" biography of Buckley teaches you nothing else about American conservatism, it should teach you two things. The first is that it drew its historical sense of urgency from ex-radicals and recovering revolutionaries, particularly Whittaker Chambers, Tanenhaus' first big subject. Chamber was the Dostoevskian figure who thought that by abandoning Communism he was joining the losing side of history. He also warned National Review not to take up the cause of McCarthyism, which he correctly foresaw would do more harm than good to fighting Soviet infiltration. The warning went unheeded. The second thing the bio should teach is that the mannered and cultivated right-wing sensibility — pinstripes and Masterpiece Theater — is specifically rooted in the English tradition of P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. (Rosen would probably call Wodehouse the "Master.") That makes the following letter Waugh wrote in 1960 so much more delicious to behold:

Can you tell me: did you in your researches come across the name Wm F. Buckley, Jr., editor of a New York, neo-McCarthy magazine named National Review? He has been showing me great and unsought attention lately and your article made me curious. Has he been supernaturally "guided" to bore me? It would explain him.

Some literary types would pay good money to be whipped and tortured like that, and not all of them went to Eton. Buckley had written Waugh, whom he idolized, repeatedly during National Review's infancy, asking him to reconsider his negative opinion of McCarthy, and to please, please, please become a columnist for the journal, a position for which Waugh would be compensated at a rate "higher than what we have paid to Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, Whittaker Chamber..." Perhaps not the best enticement for the dreamcatcher of well-born English snobbery to be baited with more money than was offered to a bunch of ex-Reds. Sure enough, Waugh was unmoved. "Until you get much richer (which I hope will be soon) or I get much poorer (which I fear may be sooner) I am unable to accept," he wrote back. More solicitations arrived in the mail, including favorable reviews of his own books (one by Joan Didion, who, some would be legitimately shocked to learn, used to write for National Review). Eventually, Waugh submitted and did allow himself to be published in Buckley's pages, despite looking on America, as so many crusty British reactionaries still do, with scorn and lordly condescension.

William F. Buckley's Porn TradeS

Waugh's correspondent in the above letter, by the way, was Tom Driberg, a university chum in a class that must still rank as one of the most extraordinary every graduated from Oxford: other students included Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell. Driberg was known in his day as one of the most promiscuous and out-and-about homosexuals of literary and political London. He served as a Labour MP in the House of Commons and, to hear Christopher Hitchens tell it, used to dash into parliament to deliver a robust and witty speech on the need for colonial independence, having just sucked off a member of the proletariat in a squalid men's room. "Tom Driberg," remarked Churchill, "is the sort of person who gives sodomy a bad name," yet that didn't preclude his becoming a peer — Baron Bardwell — shortly before his death in the mid-70's. Nor did his own Communist past and ultra-left sympathies prohibit a deep and abiding friendship with nasty curmudgeons who thought the Tories hadn't done enough to wind back the clock. Driberg was also the only witness present when Waugh was received into the Catholic Church—religion being the other twitch upon the thread which bound much of the trans-Atlantic Right.

Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, now in theaters as a badly adapted Edwardian Cruel Intentions, must have been at least in part based on Driberg (a scene at a "pansy bar" has Blanche and Charles Ryder fending off advances by "Tom" and "Cyril"), and of course any mention of that novel furnishes another irony about stateside conservatism, which has taken it as a kind of imported stylesheet for nostalgic living. Yes, a movement born out of opposition to flagging education standards, rampant secularism, the decline of puritanical values, and the sexual revolution sees a kitsch portrait of drunken spendthrift bisexuals as the artistic complement to standing athwart History and yelling "Stop."

Is it really so shocking, then, that the archdeacon of postwar conservatism found himself writing often for the gentleman's spank-rag of choice? The ideologically hidebound glory in the "languors of youth" and the "hot spring of anarchy," all right. But they thrill at how guilty it makes them feel.

[Real Clear Politics]