A perceptive analysis of the evolution of political cultures that infuses a dissection of the contradictions within liberal and conservative thought with revealing character studies.
At the core of this account of rivalry and friendship between William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008) and Norman Mailer (1923-2007) is the political excitement of an era gone by, when the radical Mailer and conservative Buckley could spar without allowing substance to be overwhelmed by theater. Schultz (20th Century American History/Univ. of Illinois at Chicago; Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, 2011) demonstrates how the two men lived remarkably parallel lives as writers and public intellectuals of the 1960s, a confluence begun in 1955, with the birth of Buckley’s National Review and Mailer's Village Voice. What they shared above all was an abiding love of America and a nagging fear of its imminent decay. Both abhorred the hollowness of postwar America, with its devotion to consumerism, corporate capitalism, and stultifying rules of social behavior, though they addressed this malaise quite differently. Schultz exhibits a sense of irony and a knack for telling details. He neither glamorizes nor excuses, exposing the best and worst traits of his subjects, their brilliance and their limitations. As political theorists and activists, they could be vague and they were trenchant. Both feared a totalitarianism of the mind, though Buckley (the salesman), unlike Mailer (the philosopher), had no willingness to shift views if he could be convinced that “his understanding of human nature was wrong.” Where Mailer sought authenticity, Buckley required fealty to the virtues of tradition. From their first public debate in 1962, the loquacious darling of the right and the pugnacious bulldog of the left found they delighted in challenging each other. From that grew a regard that, despite their differences, endured for decades.
In a book rich in anecdote and insight, Schultz assays their relationship splendidly.