Many do not know that after World War II, while an undergraduate at Yale, William F. Buckley taught beginning Spanish at the university. As a child in Paris his primary languages had been Spanish and French and, though at age seven he finally began the academic study of English, he would soon spend much time in Mexico, mastering the regional idioms, as his wildcatting father moved the family and searched for oil. I was delighted to be in Buckley’s class and, like most of the students, found him to be witty and charming. Indeed, even now, in old age, I can reiterate what I then felt: Bill Buckley was the most dynamic man I ever met.
There was, however, one ruffian, not at all the Yale type, who claimed he’d fought and killed enemies in many Pacific campaigns as, with General MacArthur, he leapfrogged toward fortress Japan. He also fancied himself a Spanish speaker though he spoke the language in a halting and clumsy way and, from his front row perch, often questioned the grammar and pronunciation presented by the dashing Buckley. After three weeks of this fellow’s strident interruptions, and a final impudent remark, geniality disappeared from Buckley’s face and he said, “Perhaps your wisdom in español was dislodged on the beaches of New Guinea. It’s certifiable your good manners, if they ever existed, were also there disgorged, and you’re currently incapable of civilized behavior. I must ask you to at once leave this classroom.”
The man erupted to his feet, clearly not to comply, and William F. Buckley stepped into him with a classic right cross to the point of the chin, dropping the lout as if he’d been shot between the eyes. “Do remove this fellow, please.” Three other young men and I carried our unconscious classmate into the hallway, stretched him out, and returned to academic endeavor. The fellow evidently awoke and staggered away, never returning to our class.
I tell you that and the following without betraying any confidences since Buckley is now deceased – I cannot image such energy ever being stilled – and so is Gore Vidal, the most famous opponent of William F. Buckley. I must here disabuse you of falsehoods propagated by Norman Mailer, who often boasted of thrashing Vidal and charged the latter was a “physical coward.” This is not to imply that Mailer lacked fistic ability. He occasionally sparred with his good friend Jose Torres, a former world light heavyweight champion, and survived the adventures, though one must primarily attribute the lack of bloodshed to restraint on the part of Torres. At any rate, do not believe Mailer’s distortion that Gore Vidal was a pansy. Mailer’s head butt was successful only because Vidal was intoxicated and sleeping on the sofa during a refined Manhattan literary gathering.
We are in good taste, I believe, and certainly required by history, to report that Vidal was a proud homosexual, though not entirely candid about it, in an era when explicitly doing so might have damaged his reputation. He knew he would occasionally have to defend himself against brutes like Mailer, and he prepared accordingly, frequently sparring with Emile Griffith, a champion who could not admit what kind of love he craved but who understood Vidal’s plight and helped him refine the manly art of self defense and the savage science of attack.
This brings us to the turbulent year of 1968 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were slaughtered in public, and the United States was bombing Vietnam, and President Lyndon Johnson retreated from the primaries after an early rebuff, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey prepared to take on red-baiter Richard Nixon in the general election. First, though, there would be the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Miami and Chicago, respectively, and network weakling ABC injected performance enhancing drugs, and more than a modicum of danger, by signing William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal to nightly debate each other.
On night one, in steamy and then rather isolated Miami, Vidal bashed Buckley for advocating the bombing of North Vietnam. Affection for my former Spanish professor did not prevent my being appalled by this bloodthirsty position. Vidal continued the attack, as did narrators of Best of Enemies, the documentary film about their debates, and sneered at Governor Ronald Reagan’s position that government “should get out of the way” so patriotic entrepreneurs could create jobs and wealth. Then Vidal landed a jab to the snout when he said Buckley is “always on the right and always in the wrong.” A couple of nights later Vidal declared that Richard Nixon would be a disaster and accused Buckley of believing in rule by elites and ignoring the young, the poor, and the disaffected. Patrician Vidal again whacked patrician Buckley, noting he had “discovered angry white ethnics,” who, one sadly notes, seem to be the eternal Republican base. Buckley countered, weakly, that “law and order will decide the election.” Chicago beckoned.
Both men returned to training camps, Buckley to his yacht and Vidal to his library, and prepared for the second half of what viewers and commentators agreed had been a fine heavyweight championship fight. The City of Broad Shoulders, led by Generalissimo Richard Daley, aka Mayor Daley, proved the ideal spot for conflict. Vidal said the stench of pigs being slaughtered in Chicago were an appropriate backdrop for the new police state. Buckley humorously, but with little relevance, displayed a handwritten letter from Robert Kennedy to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wherein the late senator had suggested sending Vidal to Vietnam. That was a jab. Buckley was eating haymakers.
No matter how tough and stoic a combatant – recall Muhammad Ali pounded in the latter rounds of his fight war with Smokin’ Joe Frazier – he knows when he’s being beaten, and this the opponent also understands. Craving rhetorical blood, Vidal bulled Buckley against the ropes and decried that “ninety percent of Vietnamese casualties are citizens.” And for this barbarism, “we have nothing to gain.”
Buckley, I concluded, would have been safer conjugating Spanish verbs at Yale. In Chicago he said “we should use weapons at our disposal,” meaning the most powerful nation on earth should intensify already horrific attacks on a Third World country engaged in a civil war thousands of miles from the shores of the United States. Buckley seemed – I’m not stating this absolutely – to allude to the use of nuclear weapons. Vidal parried that remark, asserting the American Empire was overextended and that more prudent, and humane, investments should be made in our slums.
The following evening, the fifteenth round began and everyone at ringside stood and roared. “We’re living under a Soviet regime here,” Vidal charged, referring to roughhouse tactics used by the police of Chicago against those who outside demanded an end to the war. Outraged, Buckley called that an “institutionalized complaint” Vidal used to label the police and their leaders as “fascists.” In fact, Buckley continued, the police used great restraint since protestors had raised the flag of (North) Vietnam, a nation that millions of Americans apparently viewed as a threat to our survival.
Though seated, Vidal was on his toes, shouting and moving in victory dance, and began popping crypto-Nazi, crypto-Nazi…
Buckley imploded and said, “Now list you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
The bell fortuitously rang and cornermen dashed on stage and separated the warriors. Shortly thereafter, Chicago police escorted them to their dressing rooms. Minutes later Vidal was exchanging single and double high-fives with a variety of celebrities and wealthy followers when Buckley broke into the crowd and threw a bolo punch and left hook and right cross, all missing, and Vidal countered with two jabs, one landing, before good friend Paul Newman, the incarnation of golden good looks, hurled his chest into Buckley and said, “I oughta break your goddamn neck.” William F. Buckley bear-hugged the actor around his lower back and had jerked him a quarter turn as Gore Vidal’s right cross nailed Newman in the temple.