So coverage of Gore Vidal's death this week at 86 has understandably stirred up talk of his 1968 infamous debate with William F. Buckley, in which the former called the latter a "crypto-Nazi" and earned by way of reply a threat to have his nose punched in in such a way that it would "stay plastered" delivered with an introductory clause that went like this: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or ..."
A memorable blip in the zeitgeist of America's long hot summer, no doubt.
But I rise today to object to how so much of the press coverage has put the two sides' oratory in the same penalty box. To wit, from the Times Tuesday: "The two can be seen and heard engaging in a nasty word brawl. ... The epithets were ugly then, as they are today."
So writes no less a personage than Sam Tanenhaus, whose real point was how much in common folks like Vidal and Buckley -- and Mailer, Baldwin and many other writers whose lives at times loomed larger even than their writing -- had with each other.
Here's my beef: Vidal's description of Buckley as a crypto-Nazi was ugly, no denying it. Let's face it, even 23 years after Hitler's inglorious end, it was not a nice thing to say about someone. But it was not a slur.
He was using heated rhetoric and harsh words to describe Buckley's political viewpoint -- and, despite the meanness of the language, his point was entirely germane to the discussion. He was replying to Buckley's immediately preceding comment in which the intellectual godfather of much of what passed for 20th Century American conservatism had likened protesters of the Vietnam War who lionized Ho Chi Minh to pro-Nazi sympathizers in the US during WWII.
Buckley said just like the "pro-Nazis," the latter-day protestors should be ostracized because they are giving comfort to the enemy. (Much, much more on the '68 debate here.)
Vidal ugly comment was in response, and he said the only "crypto-Nazi" he knew was sitting across from him. Hyperbole, yes, and poor manners to boot. But on topic nonetheless.
How did Buckley respond? Well, first like a bully or a braggart. He wanted to get up and punch Vidal. (His son wrote this week to say he believes he was trying but he was wearing a back brace and couldn't get up.) That this would perhaps be seen as a stroke in WFB's favor, that the best way to respond to a verbal jousting on television was a whooping -- assuming he could have administered one -- is strange and self-indicting.
Beyond that, and more to my point here, Buckley's was the classic retort of the bully: I'll beat you up, you queer.
And it was with the queer that he crossed the line and into a different kind of offending behavior than Vidal's vituperativeness. Buckley gave in to the bigotry with which he had come of age, no doubt, and in a moment of quick reactions easily resorted to.
In that way, the two verbal assaults are not of a piece. One was mean and hyperbolic. The other was an attack on someone's identity, his immutable nature (as Buckley understood it anyway), delivered with all the power of a patriarchy that even till that day -- and for decades later -- made the confirmed report of someone's homosexuality evidence, literally, of a crime.
And incidentally, "the queer" (born at West Point, he enlisted in the Navy right out of HS and served in the Pacific as a first mate) was right about the Vietnam War, as even blinded, blinkered and bigoted RFB should have known by 1968.