BUCKLEY AND MAILER: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties. By Kevin M. Schultz. Norton. 400 pages. $28.95.
Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, the original Odd Couple, had nothing on Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley Jr., polar opposites whose unlikely friendship spanned decades while generating the sort of intelligent, probing socio-political debate so often absent in today’s overheated discourse.
Even if Buckley’s “Firing Line” was (arguably) the progenitor of our contemporary style of television punditry, with its calcified rhetoric and scorched-earth venom, neither Buckley, standard bearer for classical conservatism, nor the radical Mailer allowed substance to be overwhelmed by theatricality in a memorable series of ideological sparring matches that began in 1962.
This is not to say they didn’t bask in the spotlight or eschew polemics. It’s that they did it with brio, style and a grudging (at first) admiration for each other’s abilities.
Though its subtitle overstates the case considerably, Kevin M. Schultz’s “Buckley and Mailer” brings an invigorating era to life. Schultz (“Tri-Faith America,” 2013), a professor of 20th-century American history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, reveals the nature of this friendship, how it endured, and the ways in which their political positions helped frame a nation’s argument with itself.
Buckley, all righteousness and unwavering confidence politically, acknowledged Mailer’s mastery of the written word, and Mailer would defend his friend’s “necessariness” to the last. Their families socialized as often as possible, and both relied on each other to reignite the flame when the fire banked low.
Politics aside, the two men had lived remarkably parallel lives as writers, public intellectuals and celebrities of the 1960s, a confluence begun within weeks of each other in 1955, with Buckley’s establishment of the National Review and Mailer’s founding of The Village Voice, the dominant right-left journals of the age. That they would become rivals seemed preordained. The surprise was that they shared a passionate love of country, a gnawing fear of encroaching decay and a profound distaste for post-war Liberal America’s monotone coma of consumerism, bureaucracy, corporate capitalism and conformist rules of social behavior. They simply disagreed on the causes and the solutions.
Buckley and Mailer shared a dislike of ideological purity. But they were singularly divided on the issue of the Cold War, and neither was especially well equipped in later life to handle all the changes in the foundation of American culture. If, by the early ’70s, they found the movements they helped establish going adrift, and their own influence waning, they remained no less popular draws for being aging lions, with Mailer enjoying some of his greatest literary successes later in life and Buckley publishing successful if rather empty spy novels.
Politically, however, they’d become all but irrelevant by their 50s.
Though Buckley survived (and eulogized) his friend, who died in 2007, it was Buckley whose star dimmed sooner, eclipsed by newer, more strident voices and a rejection of fealty to tradition.
Schultz is generally unsparing, neither glamorizing or excusing the best and worst traits of his subjects, their brilliance and their limitations. Both were more adroit “at describing ailments than in proposing solutions.” They could be vague as often as clear and concise. Buckley’s elitism, intellectual intransigence and views on civil rights, for example, could be particularly appalling, as could Mailer’s recklessness, marital misadventures and flirtations with anarchy.
It is a disservice to Schultz to encapsulate the book as “funny and sexy” as some have done, because the author wields not merely a sense of humor but a quest for meaning throughout. He is among the more capable interpreters of political/cultural history and adept at mining the telling detail. Schultz is especially sharp at exposing the fiction of a unified America, a “mythical being for whom no one could rightfully speak,” then or now.
But in “Buckley and Mailer,” the polysyllabic cavalier of the Right and the pugnacious bulldog of the Left are given their due. Engagingly so.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.