Very Conservative, With Self-Deprecating Humor

By: Emlyn Cameron

I approached a small desk in the anteroom of the Yale University Library’s archives section. I’d come to look at the papers of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., in hopes that the faint picture I had of his 1965 bid to be elected mayor of New York would begin to fill out if I could stare at invoices and memos.

Because Yale wants to be certain nothing is stolen, damaged, rearranged, or left behind, the process for entering the archives is a bit like getting scrubbed down leaving a quarantined room in a sci-fi film.

On my first trip I had submitted two forms of photo ID and had my photograph taken by the clerk, so checking in was a simple matter. I gave my name and the staff walked me through the procedure:

Drop your bags and any other items off in a small locker.

Leave paper, pens, and pencils with your bags.

If you need anything to write, it will be provided inside.

Take only electronics and chargers with you.

Walk to the glass door and wait to be buzzed in by an archivist.

Yale’s library resembles an enormous abbey – and the archive room within it is all intricately carved wood, stone rising to high ceilings, glass, and wrought iron.

When I approached the next desk, an archivist asked me to open my laptop to prove I wasn’t smuggling anything in with me.

“I’ll have to have you do that again when you go out,” she said.

I told her about my papers request. She brought a long, grey box labelled Mayoralty Campaign 1965 back from a room full of shelves behind her desk.

“We ask that you only take out one file at a time and, when you do,” she held up a laminated sheet on which was printed the archive’s forbidden and mandatory practices, “that you put this in like a book mark.”

Seating myself at the rearmost table, I opened the box. I stared at the manila folders for a moment, baffled. Strangely, every folder seemed to be material from the 1970 New York Senate race of James Buckley, William’s equally conservative brother. I was in luck, since I’d wanted to read up on his campaign in any case, but the coincidence threw me for a loop.

I pulled out the first file. Peeling it open, the smell of old paper – sweet like decaying apples – hit me.  I looked at the first page, a note to William on a publishing company’s letterhead.

Something about James Buckley and a contract. Evidently, James hadn’t yet replied to a letter about it. I didn’t fully grasp what was going on. Gingerly I placed it face down next to the folder.

Going through subsequent pages, I realized James Buckley had been working on a book, dictating into a tape recorder, and William had been an intermediary with the publisher. I read a message William sent James about how a newer kind of cassette recorder made dictation less tedious.

I reflected on the letter about a contract that James hadn’t answered, and the way articles I’d read had described him as demur and retiring. I wondered if he had been hesitant to write the book.

“I’m going to have to ask you to keep the pages on the table,” another archivist said, catching me off guard. It hadn’t occurred to me, but I was now sitting back in my chair, relaxed, comparing pages.

I sat forward and put the letters back on the table. At the clerk’s desk I had been given some note paper and a pencil, and I started scribbling things to remember for later.

The process began to move faster, or the time it took seemed more elastic. Before I left, I read legal briefs for a case challenging James’ election victory, an internal memo about television debates, and a letter to John Wayne (“Duke”) asking him to sign a slip William had written confirming that ABC could air the pro-Buckley TV spots Wayne had filmed. William said ABC wanted to “protect themselves against the possibility that” Wayne had “made the television spot as a home movie.”

In these and other documents, I thought I began to see the Buckley campaign’s sense of humor emerging, as when a memo from J. Daniel Mahony – founder of the New York Conservative Party – joked that their next attack against Republican opponent Charles Goodell would be exposing his use of split infinitives.

This internal archness became only more apparent as I read the newspaper clippings William had preserved. Most were negative – some read like articles one might have seen in 2016, condemning Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – but he had saved them.

One – The Shame of New York – was a columnist’s response to his brother’s victory.

“This,” William wrote in red ink at the top, apparently as a note for his brother, “has to be the all time classic.”

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