My eyes felt over-saturated by the languorous crowds of red, white, and blue and the glaring stage lights as I watched the Republican National Convention; its lack of profundity – something the DNC also boasted – emanated from my TV screen. During the pundits’ closing remarks, I couldn’t help but recall the late, great William F. Buckley Jr. and his famous spats with Gore Vidal during the 1968 RNC (check out Best of Enemies for a great documentary on said feud). Even though their personal enmity devolved into juvenile spats that are now commonplace on modern television programs, Buckley, and Gore Vidal too, was a cultivated man who had real things to say. What would he think of the barefaced pandering and absence of legitimate political discourse?
The conservative sphere of influence sorely lacks the intellectual heft and sardonic wit that Buckley employed throughout his career, whether it be on TV on his program Firing Line, grilling important persons from every imaginable field, or in print, helming the National Review. His party shifted farther to the right (and possibly farther to the “wrong,” as Vidal put it) throughout his career, for better or for worse, but he as the gatekeeper of the GOP had always been there to counter any radicalism or absurdity that might emerge. As he did with his derisive scrutiny of the radical right John Birch Society which led to its fall from grace, likewise would he do today to the newly emerging “Alt-Right” and their reactionary ilk.
Buckley’s passing also signaled the loss of one of the lasting images of WASPy dalliance and all that it entailed, even though he wasn’t even a true WASP, instead a Catholic. Despite his odd little quirks and lack of good looks, he embodied the Ivy League and the “look” it had unto itself: carefully rumpled, yet traditional and utilitarian in every possible way. Garry Willis, a journalist, author, and good friend of Buckley, succinctly remarked that he was always “pleasantly disheveled and informal.” He perfectly exhibited a nonchalance which further heightened his impressive vocabulary as well as his studied analysis of various political and social matters.
Buckley was born in New York City, but spent much of his early life in Mexico and England, later attending the prestigious Yale College. With his upper-class upbringing and attendance of an Ivy school, he inevitably developed a penchant for classic clothing – a proclivity which lasted his entire life. While others stopped dressing the Ivy way in the late ’60s, Buckley continued with that torch just as he also did with the Republican Party amidst the cultural revolution (though, his social stances indeed became more libertarian as the years progressed). His wardrobe was from the likes of J. Press and Brooks Brothers: sack suits, oxford cloth button downs, and silk-repp striped ties. That was his uniform and it became a leitmotif for the erudite persona he bred. After all, men don’t look particularly smart when they wear doltish clothes. His attire was certainly conservative in taste, and but so too were his views; that’s true consistency, something we undoubtedly need today.