Today, students, we are going to
remember the ’60s. What a decade that was — so much going on in the world.
JFK became president, the first
president born in that century; nuclear weapons were discovered in Cuba — much
too close for comfort; there was the Vietnam War; there was Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech; and, also in that era there were the
assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy.
The Beatles entered the scene, as
did Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. The Cold War was going strong. The Civil Rights
Act occupied headlines. Women’s Lib was active. There was Israel’s Six Days’
Hippies were commonplace; there
were accusations of police brutality during the Democratic convention;
black-gloved fists were raised on the Olympic victory stand. There were race
riots, and there was one piece of very good news: The Eagle had landed on the
Now, back to the ‘40s. The
largest building in the world at the time was in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in an area
known as Atomic City, where all types of secret activities connected with
development of the “big bomb” were going on. That particular building cost $512
Speaking of the ultra-secret work
going on there, the bulk of the workers were women. Many of them were high
school girls pulled from their rural Tennessee homes.
They operated calutrons for the
super-secret Y-12. Work on those killer bombs was super secret. The closest
President Truman came to talking about them was following the Potsdam
Conference of Allied leaders during World War II. They outlined terms of
Japan’s surrender. He said that if that country did not wave the white flag, it
could expect “utter destruction.”
A final note on that: The
president delayed the opening of the conference to first be assured of the
functionality of the powerful new weapon.
The magazine “Confidential” was
the forerunner of today’s supermarket rags. But get this: Over the years, most
of the stories that appeared in that publication proved to be true. People used
to put the mag down but it turned out that the magazine was right, and the
naysayers were wrong.
Confession time: I once wrote for
“The National Tattler,” a newspaper owned by Confidential. At that time,
Confidential was the best-selling magazine in the United States.
The war against drugs continues.
Still today, the super legal drugs are easy to find. They are caffeine,
tobacco, alcohol — and lettuce. Yes, lettuce, the veggie that dominates what
restaurants call a salad. You wind up with a bowl of lettuce and one or two
bites of a couple of other vegetables.
It turns out that lettuce
contains an opium-like alkaloid called lactucarium. Reports are somewhat
contradictory about its psychoactive properties, though the substance
apparently was used by the ancient Egyptians. Safe to say that it’s healthier
to eat, anyway.
During a 60-year career spanning
newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that.
Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to
keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at
and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties, by Kevin M
A timely antidote to vacuous
times, argues David B Woolner
Norman Mailer: made it plain that
he hated the liberal establishment just as much as William Buckley did.
Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult
Friendship that Shaped the Sixties
In today’s highly partisan and
largely dysfunctional America, in an age when scientific evidence, reasoned
political discourse and respect for one’s ideological opponent have all but
disappeared, Kevin M Schultz’s book, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship
that Shaped the Sixties, serves as a kind of intellectual antidote to the
vacuous times in which we live.
Brilliantly written and
constructed, Schultz uses the friendship between these two unlikely
protagonists to illuminate one of the most exciting – if turbulent – decades in
modern American history: the 1960s.
All of the major issues that made
this decade so important and dynamic are touched upon in this account,
including the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the rise of modern
feminism. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its
chronicling of the evolving positions of Buckley and Mailer as the arch-doyens
of American political culture; their mutual desire to shake up and
fundamentally change the tenets of what Schultz calls the postwar liberal
establishment; and their ultimate disillusionment with their abilities to do
so; rendering Mailer’s reflection that “he had tried to become a hero, and had
ended as an eccentric” all too true.
After a powerfully written and
deeply moving introduction, in which the author describes a dying William F
Buckley’s semi-successful effort to write an obituary for Norman Mailer that
will somehow capture the essence of his impact on America, Schultz moves on to
his first chapter, entitled “The Nature of Man”. Here, he chronicles the famous
– but now largely forgotten – debate between Buckley and Mailer that took place
in Chicago in the fall of 1962. The audience crammed into Chicago’s Medinah
Temple and a myriad of newspaper and magazine editors covered the debate in the
Adding to the tension was the
fact that the two men – one “the enfant terrible of American politics”, darling
of the right and founder of the deeply conservative National Review; the other
a brilliant author, co-founder of The Village Voice, and political radical who
demanded nothing less than “a revolution in the consciousness of our time” –
had never met.
The debate soon progressed into a
hard-hitting examination of the nature of politics and ethics, built around the
theme “What is the Real Nature of the Right Wing in America?” Buckley’s
conservative movement was in the ascendancy in the early 1960s and was involved
in attacking the seemingly permanent assumptions upon which the liberal
It soon became apparent, however,
that Buckley was not alone in his disdain for the liberal establishment; Mailer
too was deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, insisting that American
liberalism “was shockingly unable to offer remedies to the messes it had
created since the end of the Second World War”.
After all, it was liberalism
“that had ushered in a falsely premised Cold War based on a phony commitment to
Christianity. And it was the liberal elite whose corporate capitalism wasn’t
bringing freedom to anyone, putting men in all those grey flannel suits and
shipping them off to work for their pensions”.
The current liberal order, he
went on, “had created a deterioration of desire, an apathy about the future, a
detestation of the present, an amnesia of the past”. Worse still, it was a
disease that “destroys flavour” and whose symptoms appear everywhere, not least
in “the manipulation of emotion, the emptiness of faith, the displacement of
sex, the deterioration of language, the reduction of philosophy, and the
alienation of man from the product of his work and the results of his acts”.
In short, Mailer made it plain
that he hated the liberal establishment just as much as Buckley did. Where they
differed was in its remedy.
The mutual contempt both men
shared for the “establishment” and the social constructs that supported it –
what Schultz calls “the Rules” of postwar American society – turned out to be
an important subtext for the Buckley-Mailer debate.
It also became the basis for the
longstanding friendship that followed, for in the wake of their encounter and
in an effort to discover more about what drove Mailer’s “incandescent moral
energy” Buckley invited Mailer and his third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, to his
Stamford, Connecticut home just a few weeks later. It was during this encounter
that the two men discovered just how much they liked each other.
This mutual affection quickly
evolved into a fast, if at times fractious, friendship that would continue for
the rest of their lives.
From this point, the book goes on
to describe what we might call “the long decade” of the Sixties, broken into
four sections that take us from the fall of 1962 to the fall of 1976, when the
two men would once again square off – this time in an 11-minute segment onGood
Although the correspondence
between Buckley and Mailer forms an important part of the narrative, Schultz
expands his scope to include how each grappled with the great issues of their
It is also through Buckley’s and
Mailer’s personal encounters with such topics as the civil rights movement
and/or the Vietnam War that we gain a greater understanding of their worldview.
The picture here is not always pretty. Buckley’s attitude towards the
burgeoning demand for racial equality in America is shockingly racist while the
crude language and chauvinism of some of Mailer’s public pronouncements do
nothing to enhance his reputation as a gifted writer. The violence, drug use
and paradoxical lack of intellectual substance of much of the “counterculture”
Schultz depicts in these pages is exactly what renders his work so important.
Schultz closes the book by taking
the reader through an astute analysis of the transition from the 1960s to the
1970s, from what he calls “a rules-based society” to a “rights-based society,”
a development that contained elements that both Buckley and Mailer could
embrace, but which left both men feeling as if America had lost its centre and
sense of community.
This is a remarkable book. It
reminds of us of a time when the United States was engaged in a profound period
of self-examination, led by an extraordinary group of writers and thinkers
whose main purpose was to try to improve the common good through a
re-articulation and redefinition of American values.
David B Woolner is senior fellow
at the Roosevelt Institute, associate professor of history at Marist College
and co-editor of Progressivism in America: Past Present and Future