William Buckley Quotes Himself in Self-Defense

Last week, William F. Buckley Jr. read a Slate “Book Club” about his latest novel, The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy, and decided enough was enough. One of the Clubbers, Eric Alterman, had called Buckley’s book “a lumbering, themeless pudding of a novel that forces one’s eyelids shut like an invisible vise.” The other, Ronald Radosh, had described it as “heavy and plodding, without any real juice to it.” Buckley weighed in, defending his work against all charges aesthetic, historical, and ideological, and quoting a critic writing in Buckley’s own National Review who deemed the book “wonderfully readable … a witty, fast-moving yarn.” Now Buckley has asked Slate to run the following excerpt from the book, so that readers can judge for themselves. We are delighted to oblige.

Chapter 45

Acheson Collects McCarthyana

Dean Acheson was cutting up newspapers in his law office at Covington and Burling. However fastidiously he discharged his duties as a practicing lawyer, his mind was on other things, not least his reputation as Secretary of State during the last four years of Harry Truman’s presidency. His daily stimulant–“If you can call it that,” he remarked to his partner and close friend, Harold Epison, “–the daily ingestion of poison I inflict on myself”–was what he referred to with some scorn as “the McCarthy page” in the morning’s newspaper. He had been reluctant to evidence a formal interest in the unspeakable senator. But in fact he read all references to him and, though only out of sight, collected voraciously choice items. He had taken to scissoring out clippings from newspapers (when his secretary wasn’t in the room), and tossing them into his briefcase. But after a few weeks he decided that it would be better to undertake his project in a more orderly way. That was when he told his secretary, “Miss Gibson, it is possible that when I do my memoirs I shall have in them a chapter on the … grotesqueries of Senator McCarthy. For that reason, I shall ask you to clip out of the papers those articles or editorials I designate with the initial ‘M.’ These are to be clipped and put in a manila folder, in the bottom drawer”–he pointed down from where he sat–“over there.”

Day after day, week after week, month after month, the folder grew in size. The methodical Mr. Acheson took to classifying the entries according to his estimate of their ranking. “M-O-3” parsed as “McCarthy-Outrageous-At 3rd level.” “M-P-1” parsed as “McCarthy-Preposterous-1st level.” He had other categories, including T (for Treasonable) and L (for Laughable). He also reserved a classification for criticisms of McCarthy that he especially savored. His very favorites earned, as one would expect, a “1,” whence “M-C-1.” Such a discovery in a morning paper would put him in a very good mood and sometimes he would even drop a quick note of commendation to the author. When Senator Benton said of McCarthy that he was a “hit-and-run propagandist of the Kremlin model,” Mr. Acheson had filed the remark as an M-C-2, and dropped a note to Benton, “Bill, nice score today on McMenace. Well done.”

This morning’s reference to McCarthy by Drew Pearson in his column had caused him to glow. “What he is trying to do is not new. It worked well in Germany and in Russia; all voices except those officially approved were silenced in those lands by intimidation.” But he decided against dropping a note to Pearson. He would not wish to run the risk of Pearson’s quoting him. He could hardly countenance any public appearance of an ongoing contention between Dean Gooderham Acheson/ Yale/ Secretary of State/ and Joe McCarthy/ Chicken Farmer/ Marquette–wherever Marquette was–/ Junior Senator from–a state that had lost its senses.

He had dined the week before with defeated Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Dean Acheson enjoyed the company of Stevenson but thought him indecisive. Acheson relished the story Adlai had told him, over drinks at the Metropolitan Club, about the dinner with President Truman. The President was then living across the street at Blair House, while the White House was being rebuilt. Truman had summoned him when Stevenson was still governor of Illinois.

“I walked in the door and the President said, I mean just after barely saying ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘Adlai, I want you to run for President. You should announce the third week in April’–this dinner was in January, 1952, Dean–‘and say that you will seek a leave of absence as governor of Illinois.’ “

“I told him I was very flattered by the suggestion but that I was committed to run for re-election as governor of Illinois–”

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t even acknowledge what I had said. He went on and talked about this and that but at dinner repeated exactly the same instructions–I was to run for President, announce the third week in April, etc. I gave him the same answer. After dinner he walked me to the door and, you guessed it, said the identical thing one more time, and I gave back the identical answer. Then you know what he said, Dean? ‘The trouble with you, Adlai, is you’re so indecisive!’ “

They both laughed.

Then Acheson had looked up.

“You know, Adlai, the President was quite correct, you are indecisive.”

But at least Adlai wasn’t equivocal about McCarthy. Acheson had given an M-C-1 to Adlai’s designation of McCarthyism before the press club as a “hysterical form of putrid slander” and as “one of the most unwholesome manifestations of our current disorder.”

When Harold Epison came in to the office of his senior colleague, just after five, it was in order to spend an hour on the appeal he was shepherding to the Appellate Division on behalf of their client, the Kingdom of Iran. But he began by asking Dean whether he had seen the reference to McCarthy–“I caught it in the New York Daily News, which I sometimes see. It wasn’t in any of the Washington papers”–by Owen Lattimore?”

No, Acheson hadn’t seen it.

“Somebody apparently asked Lattimore after a speech what he thought of McCarthy. He said–I have this in memory, Dean!--McCarthy is ‘a base and miserable creature.’ “

“That is a thoughtful summary,” Acheson said. He then paused. “Rather a pity it was done by Owen Lattimore. He is not exactly a disinterested party on the McCarthy question. As a matter of fact, Harold–obviously to go no further–it hurts me to say this–I think that miserable creature was substantially right on Lattimore. … But that hardly vitiates the soundness of Lattimore’s summary on McCarthy.” He made a mental note to write down Lattimore’s characterization and slip it into his folder.

“You may be interested to know, Harold, that a few Republicans, who are well situated, think McCarthy has gone far enough.”

“Surely the question is, What does Ike think?”

Acheson turned his heard slowly, as if to say that the words he would now say were sacredly confidential.

“He is, I am I think reliably informed, prepared to move. … That is enough on that subject.”

“I agree, Dean. How’re you getting on with your book?”

“I write every night, five times a week, I try to do five hundred words a day.”

“Have you got a title for it yet?”

“Yes. I’m going to call it, A Democrat Looks at His Party. We’ve lost a lot of spirit in the Democratic Party, in the two years since Ike came in. Of course there’s a lot of disequilibrium in the country. You will find, Harold, that this is always so after a society completes a major effort–in this case, winning a world war. Churchill’s defeat was a symptom of that kind of–letting your breath out. The surprise here was that Mr. Truman defeated Dewey. But that also meant that the opposition never got a chance to exercise its muscles. Not until Ike’s victory in 1952.”

“So your book is intended to do what?”

“To put the Democratic Party back on its feet, as the civilized party, the intelligent party. A worthwhile project, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Of course. But you know, Dean, I hope you will confront head-on the foreign-policy problem. I agree with everything you say about Senator McCarthy. You know that. But it is a fact that we had to fight a war in Korea that President Eisenhower ended–”

“Yes. The war ended officially five months after Eisenhower was elected–and three months after Stalin died.”

“Dean, you are being the advocate now. We Democrats did get into that war, we did–I know hate that word, ‘lose’ China–”

“You are correct that we have to focus very carefully on what is happening in the Soviet Union. We don’t know what the triumvirate that’s in power now, Khrushchev, Bulganin–I continue to refer to it as a triumvirate though they executed Beria a week ago, good riddance. What the successors to Stalin are going to do we don’t know, but there are no signs they are giving up their commitment to rule the world. But yes, I am ready to say this, with great care: I will show you the draft of that chapter. I will say that it is correct that the Communists can’t be allowed to go any further. Well, didn’t Mr. Truman say that? By engaging them in Korea?

“But the challenge will be to distinguish between the right kind of anti-Communism and McCarthy’s anti-Communism. A big difference. Harold, did you see what Henry Reuss said about McCarthy the other day? Reuss was a Democratic contender against McCarthy in 1952. I think I may just have a copy of the clipping.”

Acheson leaned over and pulled out the bottom left drawer on his desk. “He said, ‘Senator McCarthy is a tax-dodging, character-assassinating, racetrack-gambling, complete and contemptible liar.’ “

Acheson’s face brightened. He gave the closest he ever gave to a giggle. “I wish I had said that, Harold.”