Wednesday, February 27, 2008
William F. Buckley Jr. Comes to Flint
In honor of William F. Buckley Jr.,who died today, journalist and Flint Powers graduate Stephen Rodrick looks back at our encounter with the man who, according to The New York Times, "marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse." And endeared himself to many people, including me, who disagreed with his politics.
Take it away, Steve...
In another time, guys hung the heads of dead mammals on their walls. Apparently, they thought this impressed the ladies. But as time passed, proving that you were a hunter lost its aphrodisiac powers with the gatherers. Nowadays, sensitive men have replaced Bambi’s mom with Godard posters, Picasso lithographs, and/or vintage, preferably pre-1979 Debbie Harry shots at CBGB’s.
On my mantel is the key to the City of Flint given to me by William F. Buckley Jr.
This might explain why I am chronically single.
It was the spring of 1984, my senior year at Powers Catholic. I had already made a series of fundamental errors: There was the year playing freshman football under the Darwinian Dan Duncan who would have been right at home at Gallipoli. Then there was the time I volunteered to run up to 7-11 and buy Mr. Winchester some smokes only to get my brand new yellow Lands End shirt covered in grass stains and blood after getting picked off like a gimpy antelope by three kids from Flint Northwestern.
Still, my favorite mistake was passing on a chance to see a triple bill of The Who, The Clash, and Devo at the Silverdome but making time for, uh, Spandau Ballet at the Royal Oak Music Theatre. The show was quite entertaining with lots of foppish hair and frilly shirts. I completely disregarded the fact that a middle-aged balding man playing synthesizers provided most of the band’s sound. I forgave a lot because I’d become an Anglophile, which in early 80s Flint made me a jackass.
I blame it on my friends Gordon and Jim. Despite the fact that they both grew up on the not always happy-making streets of Flint, the two of them had developed an obsession with the United Kingdom. Gordie even looked like Sebastian Flyte as played by Anthony Andrews in the BBC production of Brideshead Revisited. Well, except he wasn’t gay--dude was a playa!--and it’s doubtful Sebastian ever placed his face against a yellow legal pad and said, "Man, look how greasy my face is!" Jim’s take was more rock 'n’ roll, perhaps most tragically summed up by his insistence on wearing a Clash T-shirt from their Cut The Crap tour, which was actually just crap.
Somehow the American version of Anglo mutated into preppiness. We all sort of wished we went to a prep school. They just seemed cooler. I remember Jim and I almost picking up two Carman girls at an Our Lady of Lebanon dance by saying we were lacrosse players from Cranbrook. (This was slightly less entertaining than the OLOL Dance held on the night of the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight, where I drank an entire bottle of Mad Dog and then proceeded to tell everyone that I was, in fact, Gerry Cooney. Ah, so many memories.)
No human being better personified the American-as-Englishman than William F. Buckley Jr., Firing Line host, spy novelist, and former New York City mayoral candidate. He spoke in a clipped, hesitating manner accentuated by excellent arching eyebrows. In the spring of 1984, the Flint glitterati laid off some more Buick City workers, pooled the savings, and announced that Buckley was speaking at the Whiting Auditorium and then attending a cocktail party at the University of Michigan-Flint (or maybe it was Mott Community College.)
Luckily, we had a friend named Jon Kells who had a really hot sister, but more importantly in this context, a dad who taught at Michigan-Flint. We scored tickets to the speech and reception, but that wasn’t enough. We gamed the extremely limited flights arriving at Bishop from New York City and cut our afternoon classes to meet Buckley at the airport. Some guys blew off class to get blow jobs or smoke pot, we cut out of Mr. K’s choir torture so we could accost a middle-aged man at the airport.
It seemed right at the time. The best thing was this was celeb-free Flint and three camera crews showed up at the airport! WFB, as his friends called him, made some brief remarks, none of which, I swear, touched on his 1960s support for segregation. After a few minutes, he was rushed away, declining our offer of a ride. We barely touched the hem of his Brook Brothers suit.
I don’t remember much from his Whiting speech. He used a lot of words I never heard of and there were some empty seats; I mean it wasn’t The Nutcracker, what do you expect? The reception was held in some prof’s drafty, vaguely gothic house that probably could be bought for $127,000 back then and could probably be bought for $126,000 now. It was a momentous night for me: my first cocktail party. Now two decades later I know every cocktail party is exactly the same—intolerable made bearable by creeping drunkenness and the idea you’ve been there long enough to split without pissing off the hosts who you probably don’t even like, and hell, the alternative was staying home at watching Homicide: Life On the Street on DVD-- but at the time it seemed like something, well, out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Buckley was pounding vodka and grapefruit and had a frozen look on his ruddy face that I now realize was half public persona, half get me the fuck out of here. Waves of assistant professors shook his hand and asked him what he really thought about Gore Vidal, who I didn’t know. Well, I don’t know him now, but I at least know of him.
I don’t know if it was the early spring weather or middle-aged smart folks starved for a little intellectual glitter, but all the grown-ups got stinking drunk, like stinking straight-night at the Copa drunk. After an hour or so, Buckley had enough. His blue eyes began searching for his designated driver. Alas, he found him, but the hapless or happy prof was wasted beyond even the lax Michigan DUI standards of the mid-80s.
He then turned to us, and stage-whispered, "Say, are you boys still good for that ride (pronounced rhiiide)?" We nodded yes. Then Buckley grabbed his Mackintosh and muttered, "Let’s get out of here, then." He said goodbye to no one, which seemed quite British and awesome.
We went out to my car. Buckley blanched for just a moment when he noticed it was a two-tone Chevy Chevette. He piled into the passenger seat and placed his black loafers down on a sea of Taco Bell wrappers and a boom box holding the first Smiths cassette. I lurched the car into drive. Someone asked a complicated question about Reagan and Thatcherism that Buckley answered with a bon mot so heavily accented in alcohol and an American accent not known to common men that I floored the Chevette through a blood red light on Saginaw Street. Buckley didn’t lose his cool, offering just a cautionary stuttering of, "Ah, ah, ah," as he pointed his patrician forefinger toward the next potentially lethal intersection.
It’s a moment I thought of recently after the death of the writer David Halberstam who perished after a Cal Berkeley journalism student ferrying him to an interview with Y.A. Tittle turned left on red with tragic results. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was Buckley’s Yale-educated and old school Catholic God waving off the traffic, but we didn’t get broadsided by a Chevy Blazer.
Buckley was staying at the recently opened and soon to be shuttered Hyatt Regency. As we pulled into the circular drive, I screeched the Chevette to a stop and shut down my V-4. "Now, now, that was an adventure," said Buckley with a smile. I asked him if he could sign something as a memento for me. "I, I think I can do better than that." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small, blue velvety case. His manicured finger popped the case open. Inside was a gold key. The inscription read, “From the Citizens of Flint, Michigan.” Buckley pulled out a fountain pens and signed, "To Stephen, Best Wishes, William F. Buckley." He gathered his trench coat and disappeared into the revolving doors.
Within a few years of the encounter, I stopped buying Buckley’s novels and sailing books and became, quite frankly, ashamed at my earlier conservative leaning, over-compensating with votes for Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader. (I still am a bit of an Anglophiliac, I’m listening to "The Kinks Are The Village Preservation Society" as I write this.) For years, the Buckley note remained buried in a drawer, a reminder of a not so happy time in my life. I took it out a few years ago, and thought about it in a different way: here was a famous man who, when confronted with three slightly insane teenage fans with varying hygiene and acne issues, treated us with grace. I work as a journalist in New York now and sometimes cover politics. I thought I might run into Buckley at some similarly lame cocktail party. It never happened. Perhaps it was just as well. Not even Evelyn Waugh could write a better second act.
Stephen Rodrick is a contributing editor at New York Magazine.