Editorials presaged authorial style, voice

In his farewell editorial in the Yale Daily News, William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, chairman from 1949 to 1950, took his final bow — but not without a final salvo.

“For one year this column has been classified, variously, as reactionary, archaic, malicious and fascist,” he wrote on Jan. 20, 1950. “Suffice it to say that we enjoyed it all and that we hope for a Republican victory in November.”

By the time he left Yale, Buckley had become the firebrand America would come to know the following year, when his polemic, “God and Man at Yale,” catapulted him into the national spotlight. In his famous testament on Yale, Buckley railed against communism, secularism and collectivism. But before he did, Buckley, who died Wednesday morning in his home in Stamford, Conn., at age 82, performed a warm-up act at the News.

Later in life, he founded National Review, a magazine known for its stalwart conservatism. He ran as the Conservative Party candidate in the 1965 New York City mayoral race, receiving an impressive one-eighth of the vote. And he became a renowned television personality when he hosted the PBS show Firing Line, crossing his right-winged views with a dry sense of humor.

Before his trademark playfulness and conviction earned him a national reputation and permanently altered the course of American politics, Buckley honed and tested his skills in near-daily editorials addressed to Yale’s students and faculty.

“His column was something most students flocked to in the morning,” said Victor Frank ’50, one of Buckley’s close friends at Yale. “He was a real provocateur.”

‘Gentlemen, we aim to please.’

When Buckley arrived at the News building as a freshman trainee in 1946, he already knew what he wanted to do.

After meeting Thomas Guinzburg ’50, a friend and managing editor during Buckley’s tenure as chairman, that year, the two made a pact that one day they would lead the newspaper together.

“He turned to me and said, ‘What do you want to be?’ ” Guinzburg said in an interview Monday. “I said managing editor, and he said, ‘Boy, that’s good because I want to write the editorials.’ ”

Once he was elected chairman — the head of the News’ Board, whose task it was to write the editorials — in February 1949, Buckley made his editorial goals clear to the Yale campus.

“No squeamishness about editorial subject matter,” Buckley wrote in his first editorial. “Gentlemen, we aim to please. We’ll certainly try.”

And please he did, at least for his first few weeks, as he praised the accomplishments of Yale student groups and expressed his satisfaction with the University’s staff.

But he also snuck in his own views — albeit inconspicuously.

In the first editorial he wrote on communism and religion, dated Feb. 12, 1949, he refrained from mentioning Yale Reverend Robert Calhoun’s on-campus speech against the ideology until the middle of the piece, instead focusing on Calhoun’s biography.

Buckley simply noted that the religious official’s “condemnation” of communism meant it might soon be “doomed.”

Understated comments about someone else’s words, to be sure, but telling comments nonetheless.

The next week, he emphasized the importance of free-speech rights for a communist group, Youth and Student Division of the Civil Rights Congress, which had appeared the day before at the Yale Station student center. Yet he abruptly shifted gears in the two concluding lines, voicing support for a House Un-American Activities Committee initiative to force registration of American communists.

On Feb. 22, 1949, Buckley’s first large-scale, in-depth commentary on communism did not directly address the movement itself, but rather examined it by inviting Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich — who was slated to come to campus — to renounce communism.

“But if he says no, let’s hear from those liberals who boycotted [other communists] … will you refuse to have anything to do with Shostakovich?” Buckley asked sardonically at the end of his piece, in his first direct — but tempered — criticism of Yale liberals to appear in his editorials.

During the first months of his tenure as chairman, Buckley continued to save his cutting remarks, a hallmark in later life, for the closing lines of his editorials. When he called on Congress to take a more critical look at the actions of national veteran groups, for instance, he withheld his barb until the end.

“If they find legitimate ground for complaint by veterans as a class, then let them band together and wail like a banshee,” Buckley wrote. “We’ll be all ears.”

His words grew stronger and more strident as he developed his voice. At the end of March, Buckley wrote a two-day editorial piece roasting the American Communist Party for its support of the USSR.

And as Buckley sharpened his verbal crossbow, he experimented with a pithier, more to-the-point style.

Turning away temporarily from the drawn-out, verbose writing style generally characteristic of his editorials, he decided in April to go straight to the point.

“[Former Yale] President [Charles] Seymour was criticized yesterday in an editorial in the New York Daily Worker,” Buckley wrote, referencing the communist newspaper. “Congratulations are in order.”

For the next week, the News published dozens of letters in response to the two-sentence piece, as readers reacted to the trademark Buckley voice that would later fill up the pages of National Review.

And that voice only got stronger, as the chairman delved increasingly into topics of national interest. On May 14 of that year, Buckley wrote a five-paragraph piece criticizing former President Harry Truman’s push for what Buckley termed “socialism” in America. In September, he argued that legislators in Washington should ignore veterans rights legislation.

Enthusiastic backing?

While Buckley’s punditry matured in the pages of the News, “God and Man at Yale” was born in a 500-seat sociology lecture, when professor Raymond Kennedy called Catholicism “a bundle of voodoo mumbo jumbo.”

“Buckley went catatonic” after hearing that remark, recalled fellow News editor Clifford Brokaw ’50.

Buckley wanted to write a “vicious” editorial about Kennedy, who he called “Jungle Jim,” Brokaw said. Aware that he lacked the Board’s support for such a piece, Buckley threatened to resign if his fellow editors did not back him.

After a moment of “dead silence,” Buckley said, “On second thought, I’m not going to resign,” Brokaw recalled.

But he wrote a series of editorials criticizing Kennedy anyway, which some readers thought were excessively vindictive, News Vice Chairman William Carlin ’50 said. When the board met to discuss the controversy, however, the editors decided the chairman should be free to express his opinion, according to Carlin.

“For the most part, he had enthusiastic backing,” Carlin said, “not for his positions, necessarily, but as a dynamic chair.”

‘Sprightly’

Buckley’s guiding philosophy as editor was to put readership first.

“He thought the worst thing would be that people didn’t read it,” Carlin said. “It was most important that it be a sprightly newspaper.”

And, so far as Carlin could tell, it worked.

“As soon as people picked it up at Yale Station, they read it on the spot,” he said.

Much of the draw was Buckley’s own editorials, whose provocative and incendiary diatribes enticed and enraged readers, Carlin said. And they hungered for more.

“It was never dull,” he sighed.

It was then that Buckley developed a proclivity for harnessing controversy to maximize impact — a tactic he employed repeatedly in his later career. He even insulted his readers to get them to respond.

“Yale men are really too old and too mature to rely on exposed chests and smelly sweatshirts as testimony to their manliness,” he berated his peers in an editorial supporting stricter enforcement of the dining-hall dress code.

Another day, he assailed a New York student council as an “impetuous and nationally embarrassing body of students who have succeeded in demonstrating nothing more than their immaturity and an alarming contempt for order and individual rights.”

Buckley seemed to invite and relish in the controversy, taunting his critics in the last issue before summer vacation: “Come back in the fall wearing brass knuckles. Our chin will be extended as before.”

But his vitriol did not always channel ideology. Sometimes he was just making fun.

May 7, 1949: Seven reflections and famous quotations on beer.

March 29, 1949: A mint julep recipe.

The same sense of humor that enlivened his editorials shone through in Buckley’s interactions with his friends and colleagues, his classmates said.

“He really knew how to enjoy himself. We had lots of laughs,” said Senior Editor Daniel deMenocal ’50. “At the same time, he was one of the best minds in our entire class.”

Comments

  • Robert Chafin

    Rest in Peace, Bill.