Maury Z. Levy

The William F. Buckley Interview: Style Meets Substance

In Playboy magazine and the Playboy Guides (1979-1989) on February 15, 2010 at 9:34 am

When he was six years old, William E Buckley, Jr., wrote the King of England that it was high time for that country to get serious about paying its World War One debt. It would not be the last time a Buckley barb stuck in a high-placed craw.

The sixth of ten children of a Texas-born lawyer-turned­millionaire-oilman, Buckley grew up on the family’s rural Connecticut estate learning that no person, no thought was above challenge.

He first made national news in 1951, when, after his graduation from Yale, his pointed pen took on that institution in the legendary book God and Man at Yale.

In 1955, at age 30, his energies—and much of his money—went into National Review, the right-of-center political journal he still edits. From this platform, Buckley became one of the country’s most eloquent conservatives. He became a prolific writer and tough interviewer (PBS’s. Firing Line). He even ran for mayor of New York—and lost.

Just as his latest novel, Marco Polo, If You Can, was corning out, we spoke with Buckley in the small, Spartan and well-worn Manhattan offices of National Review. Our conversation went like this:

How does it feel to be in fashion again? Politically, that is.

Well, I think it’s reassuring. But I confront the phenomenon with some skepticism. All I know for sure is that Reagan is enunciating a series of positions that I was enunciating before he became a Republican. It’s interesting to me that positions that were generally held to be intolerable in 1964 won a pretty emphatic majority in 1981.

But I view the phenomenon with some skepticism because root changes in public attitudes have not, in my judgment, yet occurred. For instance, you could safely say in 1945 that America was no longer an isolationist country. In fact, you could say that on December 8, 1941. You can’t safely say today that America has become a 
conservative country.

Is it too early to see a real change in the mood of the country?

What you see in the mood of the country is a very profound skepticism about the notion that you can improve substantially the quality of life at no 
apparent expense to yourself. I 
think there has been a real intuitive rejection of the kind of nostrums I associate primarily with Lyndon Johnson. Now, this doesn’t mean that most people turn to contrary positions, but it does mean that they’re skeptical about the claims of what we know as “liberalism.”

With the Reagans in the White House, there seems to be a lot more interest in dressing well. In the better things in life. Is this something that’s good?

Yes, I think it is. I think history has clearly demonstrated that people in almost any circumstance desire to see their leaders live in other circumstances. This is most vividly—in 
fact, flamboyantly—expressed 
in the great cathedrals that 
were built in the Middle Ages. One can only imagine the kind of levy that must have been raised to build the cathedral at 
Chartres; yet that money was willingly given, and there was a devotional respect paid there to 
the greater glory of God, which 
has its patriotic counterpart in wanting the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to be more magnificent than anything you 
could find in France. Now, it’s true there’s a certain Republican limit inherently felt, and stylistically idealized, beyond which you go only with great danger. As when Nixon committed that terrible Transylvanian atrocity of dressing up his guards. I think that the native good taste of the Reagans would prevent 
them from ever going so far. If 
they did go that far, they would experience rejection. But such rejection would be very different from the kind of criticism we hear from those who got mad because Mrs. Reagan bought more pottery, or whatever.

Considering the economic climate of the country, aren’t the Reagans in fact flouting it? Aren’t they saying, “Screw the poor”?

No, I don’t think so. I think that people do not resent the existence of wealth if they feel that it is not acquired as a result of extortion. There are an awful lot of Americans who found themselves suddenly wealthy when they looked up and found that the house they were living in was worth five times what they paid for it. They found that they had a taste of wealth they didn’t resent. So it is with the universalizing of opportunity, which, I think, tends to 
debunk the obnoxious theory of conspicuous consumption. I think conspicuous 
consumption is offensive not in terms of the value of that which is consumed, but as an exercise in bad taste. The trouble with bad taste, as Stendhal wrote, is that it can lead to murder.

In a sense, then, perhaps Reagan’s personal style makes him a more commanding figure. It seems as though the Jimmy Carter, Hey­I’m-one-of-you-guys, roll-up-the-sleeves, style of being President doesn’t quite work.

Poor Jimmy Carter had a kind of a paradoxical mission. To make the White House God’s Little Acre it had to be plebeian, a little chicken-coopish. He attempted something which was by and large rejected. People thought it kind of 
charming at first, Carter walking back to the White House after the Inauguration. But when it was discovered that he went so 
far as to script the motions he would make 
in order to lift his own suitcase, then people were put off by it.

How would you define personal style?

I think it depends a lot on the individual’s interests. For instance, you have the very flamboyant dresser. In my experience, you don’t mind him at all. On the other 
hand, you have someone else who dresses 
flamboyantly—and you mind him terribly. 
Now, that really has to do with your understanding of people. If you are dealing with someone who is naturally poetic, a 
little bizarre, and he goes around with crazy clothes, you tend to find it charming. If you find, on the other hand, someone seeking to be exhibitionistic, then you are inclined to say, I don’t want to play.

Is Tom Wolfe in there somewhere?

Oh, absolutely. Tom Wolfe is totally charming. Now, he recognizes that there is an outrageous aspect about his dress; that he is perforce viewed as an exhibitionist. But it isn’t exhibitionism, in my judgment, that causes him to dress the way he does, but, rather, bizarre sartorial impulses.

How would you describe your personal style?

Well, I’m an unimaginative dresser. I never change. In fact, I finally had to have 
my ties custom-made. I never thought I’d 
have a tie made in my life; but I did—about 
seven or eight years ago—when I couldn’t get ties that were as narrow as I would consent to wear. And at that point I found myself wondering why it was that I cared so much about clothes that I’d actually go and have them made. I felt I was being dragooned by public fashion into either a kind of Haight-Ashbury style or a sort of flashy Carnaby Street style. I don’t like to be conscripted by fashion. I think that’s for women. Women are conscripted by fashion. All of us, at one time, were married to a woman who wore a hoop skirt, if she only did it once; and that’s a temptation I think one associates with femininity, not really with masculinity.

There are people who have referred to you as the original preppy. Do you identify with that at all?

Well, I think probably I inherited an Ivy League traditional dress and I sort of obstinately stuck by it. I’m not aware that my own fashions have changed since college. On the other hand, there are certain 
things that are associated with preppy styles that I don’t like at all. Specifically, not wearing socks with moccasins. I just 
don’t understand it. It’s one of the stigmata of preppiness that I simply don’t happen to go in for.

How important are one’s clothes?

Well, as a matter of fact, I found out—
I’m surprised that you’re getting this out of 
me—I found out as recently as three years ago that a well-made suit makes you feel better. I was really astonished. I always thought that my suits were well enough made. They’re mostly from the rack, and modified by tailors. But a charming fellow who ran the syndicate I write for once said to me, “I want you to try this tailor.” So I did. And I really felt better. I was disappointed that the tailor in question is 
nowadays too expensive for me to patronize. He—ridiculously—wants $1000 a suit. Now, that’s high, isn’t it?

And that’s your fanciest suit?

I have one suit that I call my Frank Costello suit, which is reserved for very formal occasions—funerals, mostly, or weddings. I call it my Frank Costello suit 
because Frank Costello years ago was being tried in Baltimore for conspiracy, or whatever, and he walked into his lawyer’s hotel suite at ten in the morning, a couple of hours before the trial was due to start. His lawyer was Edward Bennett Williams. Costello was wearing one of those million-
dollar Italian silk things, and Ed said, 
”Frank, get your ass out of here and go down and buy a $40 suit and come back.” So, meekly, Costello went out. About 15 
minutes later there was a light knock on the door. Williams said, “Come in,” and it was Costello, dressed in his same billion-dollar suit, and he said,” Ed, I’d rather fry.”

Do Democrats dress any differently from the way Republicans do?

I think, at least in the circles I move in, they tend to be a little tweedier.

Republicans or Democrats?

Democrats. For instance, if you’re looking at a parking lot and you find lots of 
Volvos and lots of Volkswagens, it’s more likely to be a Democratic function. I think that generality is probably true. And since 
most academics are Democrats, then one tends to think of them in terms of the tweedy set.

A little bit more about presidential style. Where did Nixon fall in terms of personal style? He was very rarely seen in anything but a suit.

I think Nixon was never comfortable in slouchy dress. I was with him once, in very 
private circumstances, with him and his 
Cuban friend.

Do you mean Rebozo?

Yes, Bebe Rebozo—a very nice man—and we were in that little hideaway place he 
had in Walker Cay. We had dinner, and Nixon cooked the steaks himself, and 
served drinks, and he was wearing the kind of informal clothes that you might come up with if you said to yourself, “My project tomorrow will be to decide what informal 
clothes should look like.” There was no sense in him of having grown up with those clothes. There is with Reagan. With Nixon I always felt that it was one more challenge. One more assignment.

When you travel, do you notice any difference between European and American men? Are Europeans more stylish?

No. I would say on the whole the average European is less well dressed, less imaginatively dressed than the average American.

Now maybe I say that because I spend so 
much time in Switzerland. But I think it’s true. That may be because America is the country that, by universal acknowledgment, has developed a certain kind of sartorial finesse in off-the-rack clothing. Probably most Italians, most Frenchmen would not be able to go into a store and find 500 different styles and sizes.

Do you buy your own clothes?

No, my wife buys my clothes. I haven’t
had a session with that tailor since I received the shock of what he is now charging, so I haven’t actually ordered a suit for three years.

Does she buy them because you don’t want to be bothered with it, or because you like her taste better?

No, she knows what I like.

Is there one item of clothing that you will not give up for anything?

I discovered 20 years ago the joys of, what do you call it, cutting a shirt so it doesn’t flop way out?

Tapering?

Tapering. Yes. So, I absolutely have to 
have tapered shirts, and Saks used to make them for me for an extra dollar. I feel very strongly about that.

What else?

I feel strongly about buttondown shirts for some reason. I feel strongly about socks that run all the way up the calf.

Who do you consider well dressed?

Somebody once said to me—a woman, a very glamorous, beautiful woman—that Jack Kennedy “must have the most marvelous tailor in the whole world.” I found 
myself noticing his dress for the first time in my life, saying, “My God, he is well dressed.” I had been told that Cary Grant is marvelously dressed; so when I last saw 
him, I took notice that he was.

Some people have pointed out that, in the current administration, Alexander Haig stands out sartorially.

That’s, in part, bearing—you could have a very well-dressed person who is very slouchy in his posture, as I am, for instance, and that kind of ruins the general appearance, but there is something about Al 
Haig’s bearing that sort of stresses the neatness of his costume.

Is there anyone you’ve ever thought you’d like to look like for just one night?

No, no, no. I don’t notice that except in 
women—for instance, in my wife. As a 
matter of fact, she’s one of those fashion Hall of Fame people. So, she dresses very imaginatively, very strikingly, and I enjoy looking at her dresses. But I don’t think I’ve ever paid that much attention to the way men dress.

Are there certain trends around now that bother you? Do you get upset when you see men walking down Madison Avenue wearing cowboy boots?

Mildly, but—I say mildly, not because it distresses me that people are wearing 
them, but because the only time I tried them I was very uncomfortable. I’m told that they are very comfortable. I happen to have discovered the world’s most comfortable shoe, by the way.

Are you going to share it with us?

I got some Timberland moccasins from Lands’End. And I sent out a dozen pairs to 
people because I just couldn’t bear to keep the news of the existence of this shoe to 
myself. They’re just so comfortable, they’re almost not there. They’re absolutely marvelous. You must get some. They’re up to $65, I noticed recently.

Well, you do pay a price for fashion. But don’t you think there’s a difference between being a fashion plate and being fashionable?

Most definitely. I remember an occasion when I gave a speech at a University of California campus during the Vietnam war. I was advocating a not terribly popular position at the time. Yet I wasn’t booed. In fact, they listened to me very, very 
dutifully, with great concentration.

You mean they didn’t agree with what you were saying, yet they were mesmerized by your personal style.

Yes. I suppose, in that sense, I have always been fashionable.

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