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- February 23, 1976
- Vol. 5
- No. 7
Bill Buckley Parlays a Short C.I.A. Career and a Gift for Gab into a Best-Selling Spy Novel
This season attacks on the U.S. intelligence services are à la mode. Dirty tricks are out. The CIA is under fire. Agents past and present scurry for the bunkers as politicians and reporters vie to unmask them.
Leave it to Buckley to sally forth now with his first novel, Saving the Queen, a spy thriller that so glorifies the CIA and is so packed with the details of spying that it begs the question: Was William Buckley himself a spook?
"Why, yes. Of course," he readily replies, as if afraid he wasn't going to be asked. He pops his eyes and cocks his jaw in the manner familiar to audiences of his television show Firing Line. That taut grin slices across his face with all the warmth of a Buick grille, circa 1957. Bill Buckley is pleased to play the heretic.
Save for his occasional lapses into syntactical arabesques and facial spasms, Buckley is a surprisingly relaxed, almost low-key conversationalist. He sinks beside his wife, Pat, into the tented sofa she has installed in a window niche of their waterfront palazzo in Stamford, Conn. The room is a small whirlpool of Haitian apricot, lavender, lime green and yellow. Buckley's den is a more simply decorated sunroom that gives onto a rock garden. His harpsichord is there.
"I was only in the agency briefly," Buckley resumes again, "just after I left Yale. I was based in Mexico City under E. Howard Hunt. You may know I'm his children's godfather." (Buckley was also executor of Mrs. Hunt's will after she died in a plane crash.) "I'd tell you more about it all, but of course agents make a promise not to. I take promises seriously." Then later, inexplicably, Buckley reveals both his CIA alias and the function he performed in that disguise. "You must promise not to print that though." Buckley will tell anyone his stint as a spy was humdrum to the point of "sheer boredom. I left the agency after about eight months."
There is nothing dull, however, about the adventures of Blackford Oakes, the 1950ish Ubermensch of Buckley's novel. Oakes's first mission is to insinuate himself, at CIA expense, into the coterie of dashing people surrounding the Court of St. James's. Hydrogen bomb secrets have been leaking to Stalin from the loftiest echelons—possibly from a loose-lipped Queen Caroline herself. The requirements of undercover penetration (a Buckleyan metaphor that reaches fuller dimension in the queen's boudoir) are stimulating enough to make young Blackford an agency man for life and, not incidentally, to have vaulted the novel onto best-seller lists.
Caroline bears no resemblance to Elizabeth II, but much of Blackford Oakes is, of course, Buckley. Says his friend and ideological bête grise J. K. Galbraith: "The book is an unparalleled exercise in self-revelation."
Oakes graduated from Yale in 1951, Buckley in 1950, both a little behind schedule due to the war. In officer's candidate training at Ft. Benning, Ga. in 1944, until "some computer discovered I could speak Spanish," Buckley eventually was sent to Texas for what was to have been counter-espionage work along the Mexican border. The day he arrived (on Aug. 14, 1945) the Japanese surrendered, and Buckley marked time until demobilization, instructing Mexican-American recruits on the fine points of personal hygiene. Buckley was discharged a second lieutenant in 1946 and enrolled in Yale that fall.
Buckley learned his Spanish from maids his father brought back to New York from Mexico—along with a fortune in wildcat oil. Young Buckley was admitted both as a freshman and as a member of Yale's faculty to remedy a shortage of Spanish teachers brought on by the war.
While the fictional Blackford Oakes was on the swimming team, Bill Buckley pursued cerebral honors. He was a member of the debating team, editor of the campus newspaper and a member of distinguished clubs and societies, including Skull and Bones, a snobbish secret society devoted to bouts of conviviality.
Like Buckley, Oakes can fly—he spends one afternoon messing around at the controls of a jet fighter his father is selling for an aerospace and armaments giant. Oakes was, after all, an ace pilot during the war. Buckley, after a fashion, also learned how to operate a plane. After a crash course, he volunteered to pilot a college friend to Boston. "All I could get on the radio was Life Can Be Beautiful," reminisces Buckley, who soon tired of trying to find the way by following railroad tracks and landed in New London. Another time he offered to fly a friend and fellow conservative, Brent Bozell, to a rendezvous with one of Buckley's six sisters, Patricia, then studying at Vassar. They landed, nose up, in a ditch somewhat short of Poughkeepsie. Bozell married Patricia anyway and later collaborated with Buckley on the Joe McCarthy book. Buckley, who eventually gave up flying for sailing, also married a Patricia from Vassar—Pat Taylor, daughter of a Canadian mining and lumber tycoon. They were wed in July 1950, around the time Elizabeth Taylor became Mrs. Nick Hilton. "I've often meditated on that," allows Buckley.
He remembers his college years with unabashed affection. "I was never more of a celebrity," he muses, contrasting the faceless audience he reaches as one of the nation's most widely syndicated newspaper columnists with the impact of the editorials he wrote for the Yale Daily News. But while his memories are golden, Buckley chose to repay his alma mater with vituperation. The September after commencement he sat down at his typewriter and wrote God and Man at Yale, a savage denunciation of what Buckley perceived to be a creeping collectivist and atheist ethic within its ivied halls. One professor was noticeably spared—archconservative political scientist Willmoore Kendall. It was Kendall who suggested that Buckley consider joining the CIA. "His feeling was that the Korean war might have in it the seeds of a much wider war and with it a quite general conscription," explains Buckley.
Apparently flirting with the draft was preferable to sheer boredom. Buckley's eight-month tour with the CIA ended in 1952 and he took a job under William Bradford Huie at The American Mercury, the rightish journal of politics and opinion that had been founded by H. L. Mencken in the '20s. Within months Buckley had been assigned the story on Joe McCarthy, seen its potential as a book and quit.
His next magazine job would be on his own terms. Eighteen months of fund-raising for start-up costs of National Review netted $375,000, a third of it from his own family—but well short of his hoped-for cushion of $500,000. "I was very, very bitter about the insouciance of the capitalist class in not understanding the importance of having an organ responsive to the value of property," pontificates Buckley of his fund-raising shortfall. On this note of petulance, the National Review commenced publication in 1955.
The clicking trills stop. Buckley rises from his harpsichord and a rendition of Bach's C-Minor Partita to take a tray of bullshots from the maid. He chats with her briefly in Spanish. Through sliding glass doors, beyond an empty swimming pool and retaining wall, the waters of Long Island Sound wink and shiver in the winter sun. In season, Cyrano, the 60-foot schooner Buckley captained across the Atlantic last summer, is berthed nearby.
The Buckleys spend weekends at the 15-room Stamford place Mrs. Buckley describes as "late Riviera." Weekdays they live in a 10-room duplex off Park Avenue. There, Mrs. Buckley embellishes her reputation as an indefatigable promoter of good causes, partygoer and worthy addition to the list of best-dressed women. Buckley is not far from the midtown offices of the National Review. It amuses Buckley, an active Catholic layman, to have papered one of the Review's walls with mail accusing him of being a stinking Commie, an atheist and worse.
In the morning a Cadillac limousine stands outside the townhouse to whisk Buckley to his office, to the TV studio to tape Firing Line or out of town for a lecture or guest appearance. This morning he is on his way to Philadelphia to plug his book on The Mike Douglas Show. His dress is far less fastidious than his speech. Dandruff salts the collar of his Yale-blue blazer and his gray slacks have lost all memory of a crease. Inside the car he is all business, uncasing a typewriter and, virtually without a break in percussion, tapping out a column in less than a half hour. Reaching over his shoulder for a phone, he dictates the column to a member of his New York staff.
The magazine, which is managed by sister Priscilla Buckley (herself a onetime CIA staffer), is his first priority. "I'd drop everything for it," avows Buckley. He plows earnings from the thrice-weekly column and from lectures and the TV show back into the National Review. It may be the house organ of free enterprise, but it runs at a deficit. This past Christmas, on the occasion of Buckley's 50th and the magazine's 20th birthday, 27 staffers and relatives paid for their passage on a chartered plane and flew off for a week in the Soviet Union. Mrs. Buckley came along, as did Chris, 23, their only child, a bearded senior at Yale. "At the National Review we spend half our time writing about the Soviet Union and half writing about the New York Times," observed Buckley at the bon voyage bash. "We've all seen the New York Times." Actually Buckley had already seen Russia too and, in the guise of a reporter, visited Red China in 1972 with the Nixon entourage.
Currently, the Buckleys are on their annual European ski trip. For several years they have rented a château in Rougemont, Switzerland. It was there in 1975 that Buckley wrote Saving the Queen in six weeks.
Once back in the States, the one-time New York City mayoral candidate (in 1965) and brother of New York Sen. James Buckley will publicly support Ronald Reagan's designs on the White House. That would seem to imply that saving President Ford is far less imperative than saving the queen. "They face different problems," ripostes Bill Buckley, tensing his bite.
February 10, 2016
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