How I Was Fired by Bill Buckley
by Joe Sobran
In October 1993 I was fired by National Review, the magazine I'd written for since 1972. It wasn't unexpected. Bill Buckley had threatened to fire me a couple of years earlier, and he writes in his book In Search of Anti-Semitism that he'd nearly fired me on yet another occasion, of which I'd had no inkling. So this time, when I wrote a column critical of him and disputing his account, it was a near certainty that the axe would fall.
Since my firing, Bill has privately circulated a selection of our private correspondence -- some of it deeply affectionate on my part -- and my columns about him. I have only one real quarrel with it: it's not in chronological order. This has the effect of making me look like a hypocrite for professing affection privately while publicly attacking him.
The critical fact is that my letters and columns praising him were written before (in one case, years before) I saw his book, or had any clear idea of its contents. Any reader who notices the dates on the various pieces can see this for himself. At the time I praised him I assumed he was incapable of anything treacherous. It's disingenuous of him to use what I wrote before this book was published as evidence of my inconsistency, let alone hypocrisy, when the book itself changed my view of him so radically.
To put it bluntly, if you betray a man, you have no right to complain that he isn't as nice to you as he used to be. That's the special nature of betrayal: it cancels everything in a friendship. It doesn't mean that you aren't still the same man you were before; but you certainly aren't the same friend you were before. Bill is probably smart enough to figure this out.
In his book, Bill wrote a number of things about me that were shaded in a way that made him look better, and me worse, than the way I recalled it. I wrote at the time that I'd be giving my version soon, but I put it off a while, knowing my version would probably mean the end of my many years at National Review, and I had to think hard before precipitating that.
Bill and I had been good friends for most of the 21 years I'd worked for him. But the friendship was strained in 1986, when he took the side of my attackers in a row over Israel. When Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter accused me of "anti-Semitism," Bill wrote a weird public disavowal of my columns on Israel, saying in effect that I wasn't anti-Semitic, but deserved to be called anti-Semitic. What made it so bad was that I knew he didn't even believe what he was saying. It was a failure of nerve. That was clear even from the disavowal itself, which included a sweaty digression on Jewish retaliatory power.
Earlier that year, he'd taken me to dinner to warn me of the dangers of being "perceived," as they say, as an anti-Semite. His book makes it sound like a long campaign to set me straight, but it wasn't like that at all. Bill didn't suggest I'd done anything wrong or that he disagreed with anything I'd written. But Norman Podhoretz was mad at me. That was enough. Later that evening when I told Bill about some Irish Catholic fans of mine who told me they prayed for me, he sneered, "You don't need those people." Bill denies having said this (I was fired for quoting it), but he said it, all right. In itself it would be a small thing, but it describes his own policy: ignore the Catholics, cultivate the powerful. (Try to imagine him writing a book against abortion.)
I continued in my wicked ways, criticizing Israel as an albatross for the U.S. In May the Zionist apparat went public in its smear against me, throwing the National Review into a total panic. There was hysteria in Bill's apartment the night he and the other senior editors discussed it: the disavowal had been prepared behind my back. This was the first I'd heard of it. Bill's statement didn't even mention the Podhoretzes by name, as if he was protecting their anonymity. Every other published account of the incident, on both sides, spoke freely of the Podhoretzes' role; but for some reason, National Review tried to pretend they had nothing to do with it. Furthermore, all responses from the magazine's readers -- who were overwhelmingly on my side -- were suppressed. (A couple of years later, when the Podhoretzes accused Russell Kirk of anti-Semitism, National Review was the only conservative publication that didn't even report it.)
I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. I'd merely applied conservative principles -- the things National Review stood for -- to Israel: it was a socialist country with no conception of limited, constitutional government, which discriminated against Christians, while betraying its benefactor, the United States, and turning the Muslim world against us. It seemed pretty clear-cut to me, and none of the reasons conservatives gave for supporting Israel made much sense.
Nobody really disagreed with me. That, in fact, was the problem. Nothing creates more awkwardness than saying things people can't afford to admit they agree with. Disagreement is manageable. It's agreement that wreaks havoc. If people disagree, they'll debate you. If they secretly agree with something, but are furious with you for saying it, then they'll try to shut you up by any means necessary. As Tom Stoppard puts it, "I agree with every word you say, but I will fight to the death against your right to say it."
Everything about the uproar puzzled me. After all, I was and am a columnist, not a political leader. I sit alone in a room and write things I hope will make sense to someone out there. I don't ask readers to accept things on my authority; I appeal to what is already publicly known. So what difference did it make what my motives were (supposing the Podhoretzes could know what they were)? Either my 700-word arguments made sense, or they didn't. Why should anyone get that excited? Why go to such lengths to prevent the relatively few people who like to read arguments from reading mine? But Bill acted as if it were a life-and-death matter.
With Bill's statement, National Review became, by default, a neoconservative magazine. It had virtually announced that its avowed principles didn't apply to Israel, and that its conservatism had no real separate existence from that of Commentary or The Public Interest -- both of which, in fact, were scooping National Review with feisty anti-liberal journalism. It was so eager to agree with, and especially to get along with, the power Zionists of Manhattan, that it wouldn't even defend its own from smears.
The most telling issue, in a way, was the Pollard case. Conceived in preoccupation with the Hiss-Chambers case, the magazine couldn't bring itself to condemn Israel for Jonathan Pollard's espionage. It demanded the death penalty for Pollard, but amnesty for those who had recruited him and paid him! Moreover, it showed no interest in whether the military secrets Pollard sent to Israel had been passed on to the Soviet Union, as some reports had it.
Here was the Hiss case of the Right. And some conservatives were evading the critical questions just as the Soviets' liberal partisans in this country had done a generation earlier. What the silence of most conservatives exposed was not disloyalty or treason, but insincerity. All their patriotic words were empty. It was all a game, or a way of making a living.
Looking back, I think I felt a strange subterranean anger from Bill dating from about that time. He didn't want to tell me how angry he was, because I was in the right. I was saying things -- obvious things -- he didn't have the courage to say. It was extremely frustrating to try to argue with him, because he would neither disagree nor concede anything. He would nit-pick, change the subject, accuse me of bad manners -- anything but say whether Israel was a worthy ally of the U.S. Once he wrote that I was "prayed over" at National Review, implying that my differences with the other editors were not merely intellectual, but spiritual; I could just picture editorial meetings in my absence, with those present kneeling to beseech the Almighty to guide this straying sheep back to the editorial consensus on Israel. Bill must be among Penthouse's most prayerful contributors.
When I wrote columns on Israel, Bill would write me peevish notes saying I was "obsessed." I had my own view on which of us was obsessed. Once, as I say, he said he would fire me unless I retracted a column on the Gulf War he took as implying that he was in effect working for Israel. I not only hadn't implied such a thing, I hadn't mentioned him, and hadn't even been thinking of him when I wrote the column in question; in fact the idea was so bizarre it had never occurred to me, and I was baffled that he inferred it. Now I think he was just looking for an excuse to get rid of me. I saved my bacon by writing a "retraction" whose irony escaped him. But I realized my days at the magazine were numbered. I came close to quitting several times. John O'Sullivan talked me out of it once; and once Bill and I had sharp words, and I told him he needed to learn the difference between an employee and a serf. He backed off for a while, but pretty soon he resumed dropping me ominous notes about columns he didn't like.
Once I wrote a column about the strange fear of Jews I found among people who were publicly friendly to them. Bill wrote me an angry note about that one too, thinking I had him in mind. That time he was partly correct. He was afraid people would know I was alluding to him. Well, at least I didn't use his name, which was more consideration than he showed me.
And again I thought, Gee, why all the fuss? I was just a writer. All I asked was to be let alone to write for my little public. Nobody was forced to read me, and my views didn't seem to be swaying public policy. Yet here was Bill, trying to put pressure on me behind the scenes. And he wasn't the only one. The Washington Times came under intense Zionist pressure to drop my column; so did my syndicate. They both held firm, showing more spine than Bill did. So I was able to ignore him and write.
In early 1990, as I recall, Bill told me he was writing an "essay on anti-Semitism" and asked for my views on the subject. Thinking he wanted to know what I thought, I wrote him a long memo. He neglected to tell me that I was one of his targets, and that he wanted my views for the purpose of quoting them against me in what became his most talked-about piece of writing in years. What he quoted didn't do me any harm, but I'd have appreciated at least a Miranda warning before going to all that trouble for him.
Bill's essay (it later became the first chapter of his book) consumed the entire Christmas issue of National Review. His attack on Pat Buchanan, naturally, got far more attention than his milder remarks about me; coming during Pat's presidential campaign, it did terrific damage and created lasting bitterness among conservatives. The whole essay (and book) defies paraphrase; Bill never defines "anti-Semitism," and he compounds the confusion by writing a prose refined of such coarse elements as nouns and verbs.
But most readers thought Bill's dragging his father's anti-Semitism into the piece plumbed new depths, even for the era of the Mommie Dearest genre. After all, nobody is easier to expose to public obloquy than your parents; unless they desert you, you are likely to know a lot about them, some of it unflattering. Most of the human race considers it ungracious to take advantage of them. (One of Bill's recent books was titled Gratitude.)
I think it tells you something about Bill's real attitude toward Jews that he thinks the way to propitiate them is by offering up a member of your own family -- Isaac sacrificing Abraham, so to speak. Actually, it smacks of the Soviet era, when children were urged to inform on their parents; nothing was private. Bill's own attitude reminds me of the way Stalin was regarded: public fawning, private dread.
Now Bill didn't really say anything very bad about either Pat or his father, because he didn't really say anything, period. His late style has declined into something approaching pure gesture, and meaning tends to get lost in it. All he really did -- to Pat, Will Buckley, and me -- was to juxtapose us with the word "anti-Semitism," which is in itself enough to create a foul impression, no matter what the logical and syntactical ligaments may be.
Bill himself used to be accused of anti-Semitism and even Nazism, which ought to have taught him something about loose charges. But he learned the wrong lesson: he learned that the best way to be safe from them is to make them yourself. When he caught on to that, he was like a kid with a very annoying new toy -- a noisy gun that he points at everyone.
In his essay-book, he continues to avoid mentioning the Podhoretzes' role, and he refrains from judging their conduct toward his fellow conservatives. In fact, it transpires in the responses to his first essay that he'd made a backstage deal with Norman Podhoretz to prevent me from writing about Israel and related Jewish topics. Imagine an editor giving another editor that kind of control over his magazine! And imagine letting such an arrangement become public knowledge! Why not just put Norman at the top of the masthead?
The finished book turned out to be as turgid as the first essay, except for the parts where others' replies were printed. I wrote a reply myself, and much of the rest of the book was Bill's attempt to belittle my arguments without meeting them. He didn't have the honesty to concede that I'd made any valid points about our "alliance" with Israel. It was one long act of appeasement, aimed only at getting back on the good side of the Zionist apparat.
The book may have done Bill some good, but it didn't do the Jews any good. Treating fanatical Zionists like the Podhoretzes as normative Jews is no favor to Jews. (You could even argue that it's an insidious form of anti-Semitism.) The book was written in a sort of nervously meandering prose that sounded as if the author had a gun at his head. It should have come with a ransom note.
In other words, the book is written in fear. Nothing in it suggests any appreciation of Jews, any savoring of distinctive Jewish qualities. Its real message is not that we should like or respect Jews; only that we should try not to hate them. But this implies that anti-Semitism is the natural reaction to them: if it's a universal sin, after all, it must be a universal temptation. If people are taught that the Jews are hated everywhere, they are not going to draw the conclusion that it's always the gentiles' fault. But this doesn't occur to Bill. When he defends Jews, I sometimes feel like saying: "Bill! Bill! It's all right! They're not that bad!"
Though Bill professed concern for the survival of the Jews, it was his own survival he was worried about. What he'd told me on the disputed winter night back in 1986 was not that my columns on Israel threatened the Jews, but that they threatened my own future -- and thanks to him, that turned out to be partly true. But the Podhoretzes could never have hurt me the way he did.
I felt betrayed by that book, and by Bill's general conduct on the Jewish issue. But there was more to it than that. His mind had lost its edge. I kept waiting for him to come to his senses, not only on Israel but on other things too. I'd thought the whole conservative mission was to reduce government to "rational limits," as he once finely put it. But he was getting further and further from the great old state-haters of his youth -- Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorow, John T. Flynn -- and going off on benders like writing a book in favor of national service.
Finally it became obvious that he wasn't going to change. He's old and set in his ways, and his mind isn't going to come up with anything new. His preoccupation seems to be protecting his celebrity. That was what I'd threatened: he was afraid that charges of anti-Semitism against me, no matter how unfair, would hurt him, and it was his duty to avoid being accused. In his mind, the accusation itself constituted guilt.
Early in 1993 I heard that he'd spoken on anti-Semitism to a Jewish group and had mentioned me. The next time I saw him I told him to leave my name out of these affairs. "You started it," he said. I can only guess that he meant I "started it" by getting myself accused of anti-Semitism. I'd certainly given him nothing but loyalty for twenty years. Now he thought he owned the right to abuse my name. He was telling me he had no intention of stopping.
At about the same time, he sent me another note about my column. I'd twitted George Will, one of his pals, and Bill wrote that I shouldn't do this because Will was on "our side." I had to stop and reflect on how Bill defines "our side." His "our side" seems to include a Podhoretz but not a Buchanan. Like most of Bill's communications, this had a wry interest as self-revelation. He still thought, in spite of everything, that he was my respected mentor.
This summer he wrote an especially contemptible essay on Muslims, arguing crudely that terrorism is encouraged by the Koran itself. I knew where he got that stuff. It was right out of the Zionist agitprop manual. I was reading the same sort of thing in the New York Post, The New Republic, and suchlike rags. I wondered who'd clipped the Koran for him; I doubt he's ever opened it in his life. Citing the injunction that wives obey their husbands, and apparently unaware that St. Paul says the same thing, Bill suggested that this explains the miserable plight of women in the Islamic world; adding humorously, "To all appearances, the only time men and women get together in Islamic society is when they copulate."
The clear purpose of that column was to suck up to his buddies. Nothing else. Bill doesn't even hate Muslims enough to wish to offend them. He was doing it only to curry favor with the neocon crowd, with a touch of gutter humor showing how far he was willing to go. An abject performance. So much for his pose as the Right's scrupulous foe of bigotry. He was telling Norman Podhoretz, in effect, "Whom thou smearest, him also will I smear."
"Israel," he wrote defensively later, "didn't cross my mind when I wrote that column." Then why did the column mention Israel? It dragged in the assertion that Anwar Sadat had been murdered by Muslim fanatics for his "civilized attitude toward Israel." That kind of pandering reference has become so routine in Bill's writing that I can well believe he didn't remember having thought about Israel afterward; the gesture has become almost automatic.
That column enraged me. It showed how insincere Bill had been all along. I should have seen it long before, but I'd assumed there had been some conviction, however misguided, behind all the trouble he'd caused me, as well as other conservatives. Now it really sank in: he'd never meant a word of it. Everything was for public and social effect. If the positions of Jews and Muslims were reversed, he would have written the same column about the Jews.
Bill is always on stage: always acting, posing, making empty gestures. He isn't concerned about their truth or coherence. That's why he can talk facilely about prayer while he's writing for Playboy and Penthouse. And that's why it's frustrating to read most of what he has written over the past decade or so.
I wrote a column slamming him for his ugly cracks about Muslims. Then I decided the time had come to tell my side of the story about his sycophancy to the Zionist apparat.
When he fired me, Bill replied publicly to my account by ascribing it to "an incapacitation moral and perhaps medical." That was the typical Buckley touch. He has broken with many people over the years, and his standard response is to insinuate that they have become a little, you know, unbalanced. He himself, of course, represents the golden mean.
But another way to interpret this recurrent situation, with its attendant rhetoric, is that the people Bill has broken with have consistently been more principled than he is -- Randians, Birchers, Murray Rothbard, Willmoore Kendall, Brent Bozell, Garry Wills, and others of less renown. His only recourse is to imply that they are fanatical, extreme, obsessive -- from causes that are "perhaps medical." Bill is an overrated debater, but he's peerless at making others look bad.
I thought I'd miss National Review as an institution, but I don't. After two decades there I had dear friends, but the place itself was a facade. When I signed on at the age of 26, I thought everyone there would be philosophizing and discussing first principles. There was some of that, but basically it was just a business. Nice, decent, ordinary, though intelligent people. A million laughs, and some terrifically funny guys, from Jeff Hart to Ed Capano to Jim McFadden. Bill could be very funny too, of course, but even he didn't stand out in that company. What I really miss, as anyone who knows her will understand, is Dorothy McCartney.
But how strangely different it all became from what I'd expected. In the Sixties, when most of the world was going madly leftward, in the insane pursuit of "progress," Bill Buckley's conservatism seemed to many of us to be a politics appropriate to the tradition of Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dr. Johnson. That tradition seemed implicit in Bill himself, in his refusal to join the flow of what he mockingly called the Zeitgeist. You could see in him the reflection of your own yearnings: for Christianity, for constitutional government, for the free market, for the Old South, for almost every other fugitive "reactionary" principle; and also for the courage to stand in opposition.
Now all that seems only distantly related to Bill's actual life, like the boyhood memory of a pious old aunt when you are a middle-aged man. Not that his life is discreditable, apart from the things I've mentioned; but somehow he belongs more to the world of Phil Donahue than to the world of Dr. Johnson. His conservatism is a conservatism of image, show business, public relations, stock mannerisms; big words, anfractuous grammar, repetitious Latinisms, implying a depth that isn't there.
What happened to him? Conservatives everywhere speculate on this. I don't fully know the answer, because it's partly the mystery of a soul. All I can say is that New York, a Babylon of dizzying distractions, has absorbed him, as it is likely to absorb anyone who stays there too long, and Bill, bored with his early role, forgot what he started out to do. Gravitas was finally swallowed up in celebritas. And by now it may be necessary to stand athwart National Review yelling "Stop!"