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W-Hef-B: Bill Buckley, Playboy, and the Struggle for the Soul of America

W-Hef-B: Bill Buckley, Playboy, and the Struggle for the Soul of America

By James Rosen - July 30, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr., who died February 27 at age eighty-two, was many things: graduate, and scourge, of Yale University; architect of the modern American conservative movement; founder of National Review; author of fifty books and 5,600 syndicated newspaper columns; host of TV's "Firing Line" (1,054 episodes recorded between 1966 and 1999); peerless debater and lecturer; spy and bestselling spy novelist; millionaire yachtsman; harpsichordist and pianist; bon vivant and...Playboy contributor?

Yes, in a union difficult to imagine involving any of today's leading conservatives, a group more prone to moralistic bombast than Buckley--though not, assuredly, any more moral, or resonant--the bard of East 73rd Street wrote for Hugh Hefner's oft-vilified Playboy, on and off, for almost four decades, on topics ranging from "the Negro male" and Nikita Khrushchev to Oprah Winfrey, the Internet, and Y2K.

Buckley's first appearance, in Playboy's February 1963 issue--the magazine was not yet a decade old--came in a verbatim transcript, 9,000 words long, of his famous debate against Norman Mailer the year before, at Medinah Temple in Chicago. In delivering their "Opposing Statements On The Role of the Right Wing in America Today," Buckley unleashed his trademark venomous wit on the author of The Naked and the Dead: "I do not know of anyone whose dismay I personally covet more; because it is clear from reading the works of Mr. Mailer that only demonstrations of human swinishness are truly pleasing to him...Pleasant people, like those of us on the Right Wing, drive him mad, and leech his genius." Forty-five years later, the Associated Press used the "swinishness" quote in Buckley's obituary.

By May 1970, Buckley, already a multimedia phenomenon, was the featured subject of the Playboy Interview. He confided having discovered "a new sensual treat, which appropriately, the readers of Playboy should be the first to know about": watching, while we spoke, the president of the United States take notes. Asked a solution for population growth, Buckley shot back: "Get people to stop reading Playboy." He also criticized his frequent collaborator in mirth, Johnny Carson, for having said, during Buckley's most recent appearance on the "Tonight Show," that the Soviet Union armed itself only to ensure parity with the United States. "[F]or the man who has the largest regular audience of anybody in the United States--not excluding the president--to say blandly something like that," Buckley lamented, "is testimony to wave after wave of the successful intellectual offensive against epistemological optimism--against the notion that some things are better than others and that we can know what those things are."

That September, writing in National Review, Buckley crowned Playboy "the great publishing success of the decade." Two years later, he treated Hefner's readers to a chronicle of President Nixon's historic trip to the Middle Kingdom, an 8,500-word travelogue entitled "To China With Nixon...Is There A Road Back?" As the dominant politician of the postwar era and the most viable vehicle for the advancement of conservatism in Buckley's heyday, Richard Nixon--introvert in an extrovert's profession, Keynesian anti-communist--vexed Buckley like no other politician: Should the leader of the American conservative movement stand by a president who championed law and order against Radical Chic at home but engaged Mao Tse-tung on communist soil abroad?

WFB gave his answer in Playboy's January 1973 issue, when Watergate was still a "caper" and Nixon, freshly re-elected by one of the largest landslides in American history, was readying his second inaugural: The split between Nixon and his conservative base was now unmistakable. It was the toast Nixon addressed to Communist Premier Chou En-lai in Peking's great banquet hall, inviting him to a "long march together" toward "the goal of building a world structure of peace and justice," that particularly galled Buckley. "We could not believe it," he wrote in Playboy.

I mean, there was no one there who was unsurprised--except, maybe, those who had projected rigorously how Richard Nixon does things: the imperative fusion of Quaker rectitude, and political exigency...a breath-taking gesture of historical ecumenism...

The Long March being Red China's Bastille, Winter Palace, and Reichstag fire, the invocation of it by Richard Nixon as historically inspiring could have been matched only by Mao Tse-tung's bursting into the hall and saying that he wanted to be there passing ammunition to Richard Nixon the next time America faced the rockets' red glare....I would not have been surprised if Mr. Nixon had lurched into a toast to Alger Hiss.

After the Nixon era, Buckley's erudite, wickedly funny contributions to Playboy accelerated: essays on the necessity of spying, the virtue of gift-giving, the future of virtue, drug legalization, steering clear of party bores, the elements of personal style (timing, he stressed), and, most elliptically, "What I Know About Women." In this last exploration, WFB adjudged the fairer sex to be "tougher" than men, more perfect administrators of "the superordination of the mind over the body," and possessors, "on the whole, [of] a better perspective on things." "I can't prove it," he wrote, "but I like to think that women were quicker than men in taking the measure of Hitler and Stalin..."

That Buckley felt a special affinity with Playboy's readers was perhaps most evident from a confession of criminal activity he volunteered only to them, in 1991--long after the statute of limitations had expired. To aid his personal cook's ailing sister, trapped in Castro's Cuba, WFB sneakily forged a prescription for $50,000 worth of morphine and arranged, through far-flung family resources, to have the serum delivered via private air pouch--within forty-eight hours. The chief co-conspirator was Buckley's longtime pharmacist, who gave "a little wink" as he mused aloud about the prescription's value "on the black market." "Interesting, was the only comment I felt safe to make," Buckley recalled.

* * *

In other forums, however, William F. Buckley, Jr. struggled to reckon with Playboy's larger cultural significance. Time and again, the polysyllabic über-conservative puzzled over what he alternately dubbed "the Playboy philosophy," "the Playboy philosophy," "the Playboy Philosophy," and, most simply, "Playboyism."

As early as October 1964, Buckley lamented that a pro-Goldwater film had been censored by NBC: "This, as I say...in a society in which Playboy Magazine is available at any newsstand, and to a purchaser of any age." If the magazine "ever exhibited a lady with as much as a whole half of a bathing suit on," he quipped, it would "stick her away in the back of the book along with the sedate classified ads." In May 1966, Buckley chided the magazine for publishing an interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party. "[T]o what purpose," Buckley wrote, was "inexplicable to anyone save possibly those who subscribe to the Playboy Philosophy. The editors of that journal knew, and know, that 99.999% of the American people despise the hideous views of the American Nazi....It is not merely an affront on public opinion to give him attention, but also an affront on the ordinary decencies which even a Rockwell, who is a human being, is owed."

Then--a clash of the titans. On September 12, 1966, Buckley welcomed Hugh Hefner to the set of "Firing Line" for a program entitled "A Playboy's Philosophy." "Between these two antagonists one might have expected a heated debate," observed Buckley's longtime aide, Linda Bridges, "but what we get instead is a serious discussion of sexual ethics in the latter part of the twentieth century." At one point, Buckley pressed for clarity on the Playboy philosophy, the title of Hef's monthly column:

HEFNER: The philosophy, really, I think is an anti-Puritanism, a response, really, to the Puritan part of our culture.

BUCKLEY: [...]Do you reject, for instance, monogamy? Do you reject the notion of sexual continence before marriage?

HEFNER: [...] Well, I think what it really comes down to is an attempt to establish a...new morality, and I really think that's what the American...sexual revolution's really all about. It's an attempt to replace the old legalism. It's certainly not a rejection of monogamy as such, but very much an attempt--in the case of premarital sex, there really hasn't been any moral code in the past except simply that "Thou shalt not." And--

BUCKLEY: Well, that's a code, isn't it?

HEFNER: Well, perhaps. I don't think it's a very realistic one.

Two weeks later, in his syndicated column, WFB congratulated Hef--guy to guy, iconic magazine founder to iconic magazine founder--for scoring "the phenomenal achievement" of selling four million copies and running $2 million in advertisements in a single issue. "[I]t is just possible," Buckley wrote, "that Mr. Hefner is making more money from Playboy and related enterprises than any other publisher in the country..." Here, in his most thoughtful and expansive treatment of the magazine's significance, and in a signal exposition of his own moral philosophy, Buckley acknowledged Playboy as "a movement of sorts...the slickest harbinger" of "the so-called sexual revolution."

[Hefner's] key insight...is that 'a man's morality, like his religion, is a personal affair best left to his own conscience.' The phrase sounds harmless enough...The trouble with Hefner's law is that society is composed of nothing more than a great number of individuals, and if each man's morality is defined merely to suit himself, then everyone will endure the consequences of the individual's autonomously defined ethics.

By the mid-1970s, both WFB and Hef were accepted fixtures on the American cultural landscape, more celebrated than damned, New York Times crossword answers and "Hollywood Squares" punch lines. "I find it more difficult to be verbally ruthless with Hugh Hefner after meeting him as my guest on 'Firing Line' and seeing him on a couple of other occasions," Buckley would say. He continued publishing in Playboy and attacking it elsewhere. In a February 1974 column about court rulings on obscenity, Buckley assailed "the thoughtlessness of the Playboy philosophy" and "the philosophical pretentiousness of that magazine." As before, he inveighed against "the individualization of ethics, of which of course the sexual revolution has been the driving wedge."

A decade later, with his disciple, Ronald Reagan, in the White House, a grandly vindicated Buckley indulged in triumphalism. Reviewing True Confessions for National Review in September 1981, Buckley bemoaned the film's depiction of a priest as a murder suspect, and the broader "ideologization of religion" in contemporary culture. True corruption, Buckley argued, is "the Playboy Philosophy that philandering is good because anything that feels good is good." The exception, he allowed--"maybe"--was "lynching uppity niggers," and only then because, as he added: "(Playboy--and Hollywood--feel they have to draw the line somewhere.)"

In July 1985, bemused by a Playboy fundraising appeal, Buckley cited statistics projecting half of American children would soon be raised by single parents. "Because they all read Playboy?" he asked. "Of course not. But it is unquestionably the case that self-indulgence ('The Me Decade') has a great deal to do with the fragility of personal relations....[W]e have traveled a long distance from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who awarded a scarlet letter to adulterers, to Hugh Hefner, who thinks adultery is good plain American wholesome fun and takes pride in his magazine as the principal architect of the sexual revolution."

* * *

Why did Bill Buckley, if he found the Playboy Philosophy so abhorrent, write for Hugh Hefner's magazine so often and for so long? This question Buckley answered by noting that "the best writers in the world publish in Playboy"; but this alone did not explain the heresy, for the same was true, he acknowledged, of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's (for which he also wrote, though far less frequently). There were also Playboy's five million readers and, best of all, Buckley quipped, it was "the fastest way to communicate with my seventeen-year-old son."

(At his father's memorial service in St. Patrick's Cathedral, in April, Christopher Buckley took special note of his father's odd relationship with Playboy, proudly reminding the assembled that WFB had closed out his landmark 1970 interview with the words: "I know that my Redeemer liveth." "Only Pop," Christopher smiled, "could manage to get the Book of Job into a Hugh Hefner publication." However, where Christopher recalled the relevant question having been what epitaph WFB would want for himself, the Playboy interviewer had in fact asked how Buckley could be certain that "most dogmas, theological as well as ideological, [don't] crumble sooner or later.")

In his final years, Bill Buckley resignedly accepted Playboy's cultural triumph. In a speech at Kent State University in May 1998, shortly after the Lewinsky scandal reached its dénouement, Buckley noted ruefully how Hefner, "the founder of the Playboy Philosophy," had, in a recent editorial, lauded the "sexually charged atmosphere of the White House." For WFB, the sight of Hef, as he "joyfully welcomes Bill Clinton into the fraternity of the enlightened," was too much to bear. My own interview with Buckley, conducted in October 2000 for Fox News, included this exchange:

ROSEN: I just wonder, if you look around you at the society we have today--the hip-hop culture, the rap culture, just walking around New York City streets--do you see us as a more religious country, or a more moral country, than we were thirty years ago?

BUCKLEY: No. No, I do not. There has to be some consequence of an amoral education and we've had amoral education now for quite a while. And there are corollaries which are plausible, even if they aren't conclusive. The increase by four or five hundred percent of the number of illegitimate children is one of them. It is extraordinary to me that you can, in fact, engage in public education beginning at the age of six and never, ever meet a teacher who feels any responsibility to encourage you to distinguish between right and wrong. That is the conclusive victory of epistemological pessimism...

To this defeatist theme WFB returned in his column of December 19, 2003, which marked his last published reference to Playboy--and perhaps his most explicit concession of defeat on any of the multitude of fronts on which, in fifty years on the American scene, he waged cultural war. The context was the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal, in discussion of which Buckley juxtaposed recent statements by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity extolling the centrality of religion with Christie Hefner's remarks celebrating the fiftieth birthday of her father's magazine. "She was asked what she was most proud about in Playboy," Buckley wrote, "and she answered that her magazine had done a great deal to foster liberal ideas."

Once again, Buckley returned to "the Playboy philosophy," declaring it "permissive on all points that have to do with sexual predilections (though minors are not allowed)." If anyone doubted gay marriage will eventually become legal, Buckley advised his readers, pessimistically, to the contrary: "[T]he Playboy philosophy has every reason to believe it will be so....The Playboy Channel on television regularly displays scenes not even Abercrombie & Fitch would dare to put into its catalogs...The clear winner on the scene is Hugh Hefner. Going to church has become one more exercise in permissive behavior. Go ahead on to church, but be careful not to get in the way of Playboyism when you step back from the church to real life."

A half-century on the books, then, and the score: Hef, 1; WFB, RIP.

James Rosen is a Fox News Washington correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (Doubleday).

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