Yesterday morning I read like a hundred pages from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Henry Kissinger and then, when I got off work, I came home and tried to watch an old conversation on YouTube between Kissinger and William F. Buckley Jr.
Lord did I try.
There’s so much purring self-love on display between these two pills, I thought the talk might end with each of them jizzing into napkins.
And maybe it does, I didn’t get far.
Buckley has this exhaustively verbose and needlessly circuitous ways of getting to the point of his question, name-dropping along the way to show (in this case) that he’s at least as smart as his guest.
Kissinger, not to be outdone, has that famous grumbly Germanic monotone which seems almost tailor-made to have people zone out; it might be the clever rhetorical tool of a lawyer or statesman who wants to be able to argue, later on, that he told you all the fine-print details, you just weren’t paying attention.
(In fact, as Isaacson points out in the biography, Kissinger’s famous grumble was no tactic. He just spoke that way. Kissinger’s first dance with the White House came during the Kennedy administration, when Jack–though enamored of Kissinger’s insights–said to McGeorge Bundy, in essence, “I want Kissinger’s insights, but they’ve gotta be filtered through you, cuz I can’t sit through them.”)
The conversation’s almost imposssible to follow. I was surprised when Kissinger purred some little joke at one point and the audience laughed, indicating that they’d been following all along (?!?).
As my mind began to wander, though, I became entranced byWilliam F. Buckley’s smile.
It’s an ugly smile because it’s so smug, for one thing, but it’s also ugly because it’s caked in gunk, the teeth are kinda glued together, and also a few of em seem to be missing in the back.
Since Buckley seems like such a hoighty villain, and because I still can’t get over how he called Gore Vidal a “goddamn queer” on live TV back in ‘68 and then threatened to “sock you [Vidal] in your goddamn face”, I also feel like I can mock his smile with impunity because, look, Buckley’s dead, he’s been dead for a really long time and his legacy’s etched in stone and his influence has been had, I’m not really gonna hurt the guy by doing so.
Also there’s a power play. Some people are so untouchably powerful that all you can do to combat their poison influence is satirize them. Try to make them look silly.
(Which reminds me: I once rented an old DVD of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the 2+-hour satire of Hitler and the Third Reich that he made in the 1930s; arguably, it was made before we knew just how horrible things were gonna get. In the bonus material for that DVD there was a featurette where a strange spattering of historians and writers and intellectuals–whoever was available and cheap, I guess–opine on Chaplin’s intentions with Great Dictator, and the movie’s ultimate effect. Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer and self-identified “motivational speaker” for the world of science, was very much about the beauty of art, the sanctity of it, and he said that what Chaplin had done, in satirizing Hitler so brilliantly, was to strip the man of menacing power in the eyes of so many people around the world. He made Hitler into a fool, says Bradbury, and this was a good thing. But then the featurette cuts to a Historian, an older woman who, if I remember correctly, had been a child during the Holocaust. And she says the opposite. Argues that what Chaplin did was tremendously careless. Because, yes, it’s one thing to satirize a genuinely buffoonish leader like, for instance, Boris Jonhson. Somebody who’s a klutz and probably only likely to create as much trouble as any politician before him–which, yes, can cost human lives and wealth and safety, but it isn’t going to trigger Armageddon, as Hitler nearly did. What she says Chaplin did with The Great Dictator was indeed make Hitler clownish–but he made Hitler into such a clown that people underestimated him. They underestimated how he resonated with the German people. And indeed, the impression I’ve gotten from my own toe-dipping into the history of WWII’s build-up, it does seem that Hitler had a major head start by merit of the fact that people weren’t taking him seriously. Even Freud, as I learned in Clive James’s essay collection Cultural Amnesia, fled Vienna to avoid Hitler but confided, to his diary, that the Vatican would ultimately get in his way and straighten things out. Personally: I think she makes the winning case. Though I like Great Dictator and think it’s a valuable artifact for a whole buncha reasons (plus genuinely funny and moving in some places, even if I think that the final speech is a bit pat), I’m inclined to agree with her about the road his good intentions might’ve paved. –Which reminds me of an apology letter that Philip Roth once wrote to a friend that began, “The Good Intentions Paving Company fucks it up again.”)
Anyway–there’s a power thing where one can argue that Buckley was a figure of such toxic influence that, sure, make a caricature of him.
On the other hand, I’m pretty firmly opposed to mocking anything about anyone’s appearance, ever, because I remember, in college, that I had a close friend who was handsome, charismatic, fall-outta-your-chair funny and smart, slated for major professional accomplishments; plus his mom was rich, and so he was always decked out in subtle tasteful finery.
He was a person to envy.
But he was from Puerto Rico, and he had a fairly strong accent, and he was always convinced that he came across as ignorant, or that people were judging him for how he spoke. Correcting his pronunciation.
And it made sense that people would tease him for his accent cuz, given how obviously remarkable he was in every other facet of his presentation, you might think, “Ha ha, this guy, lemme fuck with him about his accent.” And, no lie, he would’ve chuckled along and rolled his eyes while you were doing it, but he’da been fighting back tears at the steering wheel that night driving home.
That’s not a facet of his appearance, I know, but when it comes to someone’s birthmark, their hairline, their belly, their breasts–you might think that it’s attractive, or endearing, or even kinda funny-looking, and so you comment on it with no ill-will at all, maybe because you yourself, in a Don Rickles fashion, appreciate that your own appearance is so inherently funny and mockable, by contrast to theirs, that there’s no way they can take your teasing to heart. But the person only feels studied. They feel like a specimen.
As Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, “[M]y body enters a room before I do.” (This is a paraphrase cuz I’m not sure where in her very terrific and worth-following blog I read the remark.) Meaning that there are judgments people make of you before you open your mouth or reveal your credentials or divulge your intentions. And people’s imaginations tend to run with the idea of what their body signifies. Or sometimes it’s not even their imagination! Sometimes they just fuckin know, intimately, that they’re judged because of X or Y or Z feature.
So don’t fuck with it. Don’t mention it.
But also, when it comes to William F. Buckley, to mock his appearance feels like fair game only because of a dozen different other sociological and cultural factors…
I should probably just abstain. Cuz I feel like a tool even doing it in my head.
The Kissinger book’s good.