In 1965, the year of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and the Watts riots, an ancillary skirmish played out across the Atlantic. James Baldwin, then at the height of his international reputation, faced off against William F. Buckley Jr., the “keeper of the tablets” of American conservatism, in the genteel confines of the Cambridge Union. The proposition before the house was: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” For Baldwin, who would roll his eyes more than once during the debate, the question indicated glaring ignorance. The American dream was a nightmare from which he was trying to wake. For Buckley, the American dream was a giant bootstrap that American blacks refused to employ. “We will fight … on the beaches and on the hills, and on mountains and on landing grounds,” he told the audience of students that evening, channeling Winston Churchill. Only Buckley invoked the imagery of plucky guerrilla resistance not against a Nazi invasion of the British Isles, but against Northern radicals bent on uprooting the Southern way of life.
Nicholas Buccola’s “The Fire Is Upon Us” is both a dual biography of Buckley and Baldwin and an acute commentary on a great intellectual prizefight. Baldwin and Buckley were, to put it mildly, from opposite sides of the tracks. Buckley was the son of an oil speculator who grew up in a Connecticut mansion stocked with tutors and servants. He honed his debating skills at the family dinner table and at Yale, where he was triggered by the presence of secular, left-leaning faculty members on campus, and later, in “God and Man at Yale,” called for a ban on hiring them.
Lack of godliness was less of a problem in Harlem. James Baldwin learned how to lock and load the English language as a child prodigy storefront preacher. Buckley’s postcollege trajectory included a stint in the C.I.A., while Baldwin’s extra-literary activities earned him a thick F.B.I. file. By the early 1960s, Buckley had gathered disparate right-wing tribes together in his magazine, National Review. Baldwin, despite his growing renown, would remain more of a loner. By the time he reached the Cambridge Union, he was already at odds with both the separatist agenda of the Nation of Islam and the arid progressivism of the Johnson White House.
Enshrined on YouTube and in countless documentaries, the Baldwin-Buckley debate remains an uncanny exchange. The grainy black-and-white BBC footage shows an overpacked Cambridge Union, with a sea of mostly young white men in jackets. The way Baldwin swings his body and thrusts his hands in his pockets and barely refers to his prepared notes makes him seem much closer to our moment than to the one that surrounds him. When he finally stands up after the two brittle speeches on either side of the motion by Cambridge undergraduates, he twists his eyes to the upper gallery where his sister Gloria was seated. Slowly, then quickly, he makes the alien hall his own.
Buccola, a professor of political science at Linfield College, deftly guides the reader through the rhetorical and philosophical moves of Baldwin’s speech. Baldwin adopted the tone of a preacher — “a kind of Jeremiah,” as he put it — who wants to readjust his audience’s “system of reality.” He tries to get them to imagine the black American experience from the inside. “It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians — when you were rooting for Gary Cooper — that the Indians were you.” Did the American dream come at the expense of the American Negro? For Baldwin, the obtuseness of the question demanded a pronoun switch: “I am stating this very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing.”
“The Fire Is Upon Us” becomes revelatory in its interpretation of Buckley’s performance. We learn, for instance, that the Cambridge students had first tried to get Strom Thurmond or Barry Goldwater to debate Baldwin, only later settling on Buckley, who seems to have been eager for the publicity. We also learn that Buckley’s speech that evening was based on an article he had commissioned for National Review by Garry Wills. Wills, a young Catholic ultra, who would later break with Buckley over racial questions and become an indispensable interpreter of the American scene, drafted a fierce response to Baldwin’s famous New Yorker essay, “Letter From a Region in My Mind.” Part of the trouble with Baldwin for Wills was that he was treated as a savior by his white liberal readership and not afforded the dignity of scrutiny that he would have received if he were white. Wills believed that Baldwin went too far in his condemnation of the West. “When a Dachau happens,” Wills wrote, “are we — as Baldwin suggests — to tear up all the Bibles, disband the police forces, take crowbars to the court buildings and the libraries?” This was a selective reading of Baldwin, who, as his Cambridge speech makes clear, was if anything more committed to upholding the legacy of the Enlightenment than National Review’s editorial board was. But what would come to gall Wills even more than Baldwin was that his boss Buckley not only lifted from his piece (before it was published) for one of his own columns but also distorted Wills’s honest reckoning with Baldwin in the interest of his own, more facile and racialist prong of attack.
Buccola shows how Buckley in his Cambridge speech was developing a new kind of conservative maneuver. In his war on the New Left, Buckley’s method — both on his television show “Firing Line” and in other public appearances — was less to engage than to expose. (The method backfired on occasion, as when Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party, began a segment of “Firing Line” by out-Buckley-ing Buckley with a loyalty oath question: “During the Revolution of 1776 … which side would you have been on?”) Charm, wit, eye-twinkling and rapid deployment of stray factoids were among Buckley’s chief rhetorical assets. His main form of reasoning consisted of forced analogies. The Freedom Riders were compared to National Socialists in the pages of National Review.
In the Cambridge speech, Buckley dialed the comparison down, comparing the Irish in England to American blacks. Had the Irish gotten the vote because of, or in spite of, English civilization? Buckley asked. “The engines of concern are working in the United States,” he assured his audience. “The presence of Mr. Baldwin here tonight is in part a reflection of that concern.” The full force of Buckley’s argument was that blacks should aspire to the condition of whiteness, however unattainable that might turn out to be. The suffering and humiliations of blacks were real, he conceded, but this was more a testament to the fallen state of man than something that could be corrected swiftly. “I am asking you not to make politics as the crow flies,” Buckley told his audience, quoting the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Buckley’s stress on the gradualness of any accommodation told Baldwin all he needed to know: Why, after 400 years of being in America, did blacks not have access to the same bounty as their fellow Americans, including those who, like the Kennedys, “only got here yesterday?”
Baldwin’s views of race relations seesawed considerably in the ’60s, from a kind of cosmic resignation that, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “perhaps struggle is all we have.” But on that February night in Cambridge, Baldwin envisioned a different endgame. “We are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other,” he told his audience. He suggested it might be possible to create a new political synthesis if white Americans were prepared to recognize what they had done, both to blacks but also, crucially, to themselves. Alongside his more apocalyptic visions, Baldwin harbored a wary utopian presentiment that Buckley believed ignored man’s true nature and endangered America’s delicate hierarchies.
It is tempting to view the Baldwin-Buckley debate as a small victory for the idea of racial equality: Baldwin carried the floor vote 544 to 164. But part of the wisdom of “The Fire Is Upon Us” is that it leaves the import of the evening open to question. The debate, and his subsequent encounters with Buckley, left Baldwin with a bitter taste: “He’s the intellectuals’ James Bond,” he once said.
Buckley believed he had gained much more from their night in Cambridge: “the most satisfying debate I ever had.” He would lose again, badly, later that year when he ran for mayor of New York. Curiously, his main support came not from the WASP establishment of Manhattan but from white voters in the outer boroughs. Buckley’s knack for historical analogies continues to flourish. The money manager Stephen Schwarzman compared an Obama administration proposal to raise taxes on hedge funds to the Nazi invasion of Poland. After the last presidential election, Buckley’s son, Christopher, took to Vanity Fair to argue that his father’s politics had nothing to do with those of the outer-borough vulgarian who had landed in the White House. It would have been more becoming had he simply tipped his hat to one of the shrewder authors of our predicament.