Bill and Norman

Review: Kevin Schultz, ‘Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties’

Buckley and Mailer on ‘Firing Line’ in 1968 (screenshot)

In September 1962, Sonny Liston fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title before a crowd of 19,000 in Chicago.This confrontation was preceded two days earlier by another marquee event, less kinetic but no less momentous. "The debate of the year" at Chicago’s grand Medinah Temple drew a crowd of 3,000. Playboy magazine published the full transcript of the event and sold 1.5 million copies, a publication record. The debaters were Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr., rising stars of the left and right.

Bookies set the odds at 2.5 to 1 in favor of Buckley, the voluble debating champ, but Mailer was formidable also. The young radical spent the week before the big event partying at the Playboy Mansion. Despite his dissolution, he managed a 6-3-1 victory. This indecisive outcome set the stage for future meetings between the two men, and eventually for an unlikely friendship.

In Buckley and Mailer, Kevin Schultz argues that the discourse between Buckley and Mailer was a bellwether for the political upheaval that would occur in the ensuing decade. Their debate, Schultz writes, was not just a contest between two larger-than-life personalities. It was "a discussion about the kind of life worth living."

The author’s bias in favor of Mailer, which sometimes grates, notwithstanding, Buckley and Mailer is well researched and enjoyable throughout. The book describes a society on the brink of transition from a unified culture forged by depression and war to the pluralist and partisan culture we live in today. The social role occupied by these two intellectuals is best illustrated by their depiction on the book’s cover as harlequins—the jokers from a deck of cards. Throughout the 1960s, Buckley and Mailer were a constant presence at court, thumbing their noses at the lords and ladies, the bureaucrats and planners, of Kings Johnson and Nixon. (Such a deck did in fact exist, Schultz informs us. It was printed in 1971, with a grotesque Nixon as king.)

Buckley, of course, was the conservative founder of National Review, and host of Firing Line. Mailer rocketed to fame at an early age as the author of The Naked and the Dead; once a fellow traveler and Henry Wallace supporter, he meandered politically before finding a home in the radical student politics of the Vietnam War era. The two were different in so many obvious ways. Buckley was diplomatic and (his detractors whispered) effeminate in manner; Mailer was a pugnacious New Yorker. Buckley had a happy marriage, a sailboat, and the Catholic Church. Mailer had a rotating cast of wives, a motorcycle, and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

What is more interesting is how the two were alike. Foremost, they shared a common enemy in technocratic "Whiz Kids" liberalism, which at the time was fine-tuning the domestic economy through the Great Society and fine-tuning the Mekong Delta through aerial bombing. Buckley saw the centralization of government at home as a betrayal of the country’s greatness, which sprang from limited government and federalism. He supported full engagement in the Vietnam War, not Johnson’s creeping escalations. For him the conflict was a proxy for the greater Cold War struggle between freedom and slavery.

Mailer saw the institutions of mid-century America as deadening to the soul. His "existential" politics was more of a lifestyle philosophy than a governing platform. Mailer was in search of psychic fulfillment, of a sort, which he believed could be achieved through spontaneous, experimental living. The enemies of fulfillment were the men in grey flannel suits from General Electric, the urban planning commission, and the Pentagon.

Both also wanted to be mayor of New York City, and Schultz’s accounts of their quixotic bids for office justify the purchase of this book all on their own. Buckley’s campaign with the Conservative Party of New York came first, in 1965. If quips were votes, Buckley would have walked to victory. His most famous line (Journalist: "What will you do if you win?" Buckley: "Demand a recount") indicates he was realistic about his chances. But there was a practical goal: he used the run to introduce the city to his governing vision, which emphasized law, order, and local control. Buckley finished third with 13.4 percent of the vote.

Mailer’s run in 1969 was more sensational. Partly this was a consequence of his platform, with which Mailer advocated, among other things, for the secession of New York City from New York State, the prohibition of all motor traffic once per month, and a zoo in every neighborhood. Partly this was a consequence of Mailer’s own behavior — bluster and alcoholism were not easily mistaken for administrative competence. Mailer finished second to last in the Democratic primary with 5 percent of the vote.

Schultz’s handling of his eccentric characters is for the most part deft and instructive. Buckley is criticized, justly and for a full chapter, for his positions on race, but Schultz portrays him throughout the book as he was portrayed by his fiercest contemporary critics: as a dressed-up spokesman for the angry, crypto-fascist rabble of the Right. By contrast, while Mailer comes in for some chastisement over his personal conduct—the "bad boy of American letters" once drunkenly stabbed his wife at a party—practically no space is devoted to his morally bankrupt advocacy of peaceful coexistence with communism. A book about the defining issues of the 1960s might have reflected more seriously on the Cold War.

If the reader can get over this deficiency, he will be rewarded with a unique chronicle of an odd and illustrative friendship. The correspondence between Buckley and Mailer that peppers the book is suffused with warmth good-natured humor. Buckley and Mailer respected the importance of ideas and each other. As Schultz writes, their sparring was "really a contest to see who [could] save the other’s soul."Buckley and Mailer is worth reading, then, to understand the changes that have occurred in our politics and culture since the 1960s. Reflect for a moment that in 1962 over a million people actually read Playboy for the articles.