The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Bill Buckley as Novelist: The Saga of Blackford Oakes (Part I)
Richard Coulson - 02/09/10
William F. Buckley Jr.

When the late William F. Buckley Jr. (1925–2008) accepted an invitation to lunch in the fall of 1974 from Sam Vaughan, head of the Doubleday publishing house, he didn’t know where the conversation would lead. Either he or Vaughan eventually raised the question, what kind of new book would Buckley like to write? By then, starting with God and Man at Yale in 1951, he had already produced some dozen nonfiction works, primarily about the conflict between Left and Right, interspersed with brilliantly etched tales of personal adventures. With his polemical journal, National Review, well established, and his lively TV program, Firing Line, attracting fascinated viewers, he already had a national reputation. He had particularly intrigued New Yorkers with his wonderfully quixotic 1965 campaign for mayor, making both the other candidates Abe Beame and John Lindsay (the eventual winner) appear as cretinous incompetents. When asked by an interviewer to define the difference between them, he responded in his inimitable drawl, “Well . . . Mr. Beame is very short . . . and Mr. Lindsay is very tall.”

Bill Buckley had nothing more to prove as a public figure. Thanks to his scintillating heiress wife, Patricia, his social calendar was always full, his homes in New York and Stamford immaculately maintained. Perhaps he was bored, ready for a different challenge, or disillusioned with a Republican Party that had sunk with Richard Nixon. How to usefully fill the annual two-month skiing holiday in Switzerland? At any rate, he mentioned diffidently to Vaughan that he had recently read and admired Frederick Forsyth’s spy thriller Day of the Jackal. Wouldn’t it be fun to try something in the same line? Not slow to spot a publishing opportunity, Vaughan had a contract for a novel on Bill’s desk the next day.

Thus began a remarkable run of fiction. In the eighteen years 1976 through 1994, ten of the so-called Blackford Oakes novels appeared; after a hiatus, in 2005 Oakes reappeared and was retired with an eleventh and final work. Blackford Oakes was a hit from the beginning. And Sam Vaughan was warmly acknowledged as editor in all of them, despite changes of publishers. With the publication of the initial novel, Saving the Queen, Bill for the first time showed his surprising expertise at fast-moving, if somewhat improbable, tales. He had an attractive hero, a clean-cut American loyal to his CIA employer, sharp dialogue, vivid descriptions of international scenes, accurate bites of recent history, love (with pretty awkward sex), death, conflicts, suspense. The audacious premise that Oakes slept with the queen of England (although an imaginary one) doubtless helped sales for a writer unknown as a novelist.

“The Honorable Alternative”

Buckley made a major point that all his Oakes books were designed to uphold the moral superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites and intelligence agencies. In his introduction to The Blackford Oakes Reader (1995), he warns us, “I would write a book where the good guys and the bad guys were actually distinguishable from each other . . . and the good guys would be—the Americans!” He quite deliberately wanted to refute the likes of authors John le Carré, Len Deighton, and Graham Greene, who, he maintained, described the CIA and the KGB as equivalent, each guilty of scandalous and morally insupportable practices. Not so, says Buckley: “The CIA, whatever its failings, sought, during those long years in the struggle for the world, to advance the honorable alternative.” This position was of course perfectly predictable and consistent with Buckley’s worldview, as repeatedly stated in his writings and speeches.

Even among true-blue Americans, however, it’s doubtful that this ideological slant had much to do with the success of the Blackford Oakes books. After all, literate readers, of any political stripe, continued to buy the very le Carré works that he disparaged. What they liked was Buckley’s tales, not the ideology. Le Carre’s latest, A Most Wanted Man, published in 2008, was reviewed as possibly his finest book and was another best-seller. Quite contrary to Buckley, le Carré viciously condemned the CIA; as he has made clear in interviews, he does not hate the United States, but he does loathe the CIA as a manifestation of the Bush/Cheney policies.

The Oakes tales tell much more than what’s on the printed page. They serve as keys to Bill’s complex personality, instilled habits, and multifaceted life. We know that Bill himself shied away any form of self-analysis. He certainly never had a session with a psychiatrist or any other seeker helping him “to find himself.” Such ruminations he considered a waste of otherwise productive time. His unwavering Catholic faith gave him all the spiritual strength and personal self-assurance that he ever needed. Not suffering from any doubts, but rather to educate himself more deeply into his faith, he late in life undertook a remarkable investigation resulting in his 1997 book Nearer, My God, which might be better titled “Why I Am a Catholic.”

But we readers are not bound by Bill’s aversion to introspection and are free to learn what we can from the novels that occupied so much of his time over nearly twenty years. They were written at great speed; not only the mechanical act of typing (Bill had forced himself to become a touch typist while still a teenager) but the imaginative act of conceiving a theme and reducing it to hard words of dialogue and narrative were completed in bursts of literary effort, mixed with skiing on slopes looming over a village near Gstaad, a convenient two hours from Geneva airport.

Every year Bill hired an editorial assistant to help him in his labors. One of them, Peter Robinson, now a fellow of the Hoover Institution, spent the winter of 1988 working daily with Buckley and has described the process. They shared a large studio on the ground floor of the elegant Chateau Rougemont, the Buckleys’ annual rental. “Every morning I would be at my desk by 7:30,” says Robinson, “and Bill would be there before me. We sat at separate tables tapping at our computers, with classical music piped in, me pulling together a compendium of Firing Line transcripts, him adapting Stained Glass, the second Oakes novel, into a stage play. [The repertory Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, opened the play on Good Friday 1989, apparently to the satisfaction of the large Buckley claque who attended.] The morning work was intense except for periodic phone calls to Bill, about which he complained but actually loved—Bill could not survive long without conversation. About noon we would break for a small but convivial lunch, then spend the afternoon skiing where Bill displayed his aggressive, adventurous, but distinctly inelegant style. Usually we would go back to work between 5 and 6 p.m., followed by a dinner that was the day’s social event, with guests that might include Roger Moore and his wife, King Constantine of Greece, author James Clavell, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Prince Romanov, and old friends Taki [Theodoracopulos and Dick Clurman. But about 10 p.m., if guests were showing no signs of leaving, Bill played ‘Good Night Ladies’ on the piano and we repaired downstairs for another couple of hours of work, this time accompanied by Bill’s favorite jazz recordings.”

After a winter season of these sessions, the manuscript was shipped off to New York, requiring only a month of cleanup editing later in the summer before being sent to the printer. In the working hours he had to find time to answer the bulky correspondence sent over daily from National Review by Frances Bronson, his much-more-than-secretary, and his sister Pitts (Patricia), the longtime managing editor, to say nothing of writing his biweekly column.

Even with his natural facility at writing, what he accomplished during these winter sojourns was pretty amazing. Each Blackford Oakes novel was not simply a theoretical construction but a vignette of a specific period and set of locations, built around recent events. Although Bill’s wide and constant traveling gave him personal knowledge of many of the venues, certainly further research was required to get the details right. Even with a young literary assistant at hand, eager to learn from the master, it must have been a formidable task for Bill to merge the many nitpicky facts (the Russian SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile stored in Cuba in 1963 was sixty-eight feet long with a diameter of sixty-three inches) with the grand sweep and thrust of the current book, all within a brief and busy two months. Not many authors could have done it.

All this was hard graft. Why did he tie himself to the typewriter when he could have been skiing, a pastime that we know he loved?

There must have been the simple pride at unexpectedly succeeding in a new genre.

One also has a suspicion that he came to enjoy writing fiction more than his tendentious political and intellectual efforts. The record of his literary output shows that from 1976, when Blackford Oakes first appeared, to the end of his life he produced more novels and personal reminiscences, often about sailing, than works of conservative thought.

Finally, there was the financial factor. In all the accounts of Bill’s life, biographers have tiptoed discreetly around the question of how he and Pat afforded their glamorous and inevitably expensive life styles—a superb maisonette on Park Avenue, a shorefront estate in Connecticut, up-market winter rentals in Switzerland and later the Bahamas and Bermuda, resident chef Julian Booth (inherited from David Niven), nonstop entertaining, long and short voyages on a series of sturdy sailboats. Bill’s inheritance from the complex oil ventures created by his father had dwindled pretty low, drifting out of family control and divided between ten children sharing tenuous royalty income. We know that National Review was never a money spinner, and had to be subsidized. Pat’s inheritance certainly contributed, coming as she did from the dominant Taylor family of Vancouver, with a father amassing a fortune in timber and mining and brother Austin becoming CEO of the Canadian securities firm McLeod, Young & Weir—and also one of Bill’s frequent sailing mates. Doubtless she could pay the tab for her own lavish but tasteful wardrobe with enough left for the hefty grocery, wine, and decorating bills, but Bill was too proud a man to be fully supported by a wife.

Buckley worked punishingly hard to earn his own way: fifty or more paid speeches every year at dreary motel locations across America, taping Firing Line, the widely syndicated column, magazine articles, well-compensated cruises lecturing to fellow (conservative) passengers, even negotiating corporate subsidies for some of his personal ocean voyages—most of which was ploughed into the magazine that underlay his fame. The novels became a welcome addition to this stream of income. The most popular book of the Blackford Oakes saga, 1985’s See You Later Alligator, earned him about $115,000 in hardcover sales, considerably more than some of his “serious” efforts. The advance from another funded a winter trip to Russia for twenty NR staffers.

A Plausible and Attractive Hero

As Buckley told us, his first mission was to create a plausible and attractive Blackford Oakes, a hero who would neither bore nor annoy readers. Bill called his creation a “distillate,” but that hardly seems the right word, since it suggests a mixture of qualities from varied sources. In fact, Oakes is a pretty routine product of his background—a WASPy Yalie from all-American middle-class parents (although they later split). We see nothing remotely eccentric or oddball about him, with no traumas or tragedies in his history; in fact he’s pretty much like Bill, except that he’s not a Catholic and that he’s trained as an engineer, the same profession as Bill’s admired Yale roommate Richie O’Neill.

Unlike other heroes of the spy-thriller era, Oakes boasts an image that is almost excessively perfect: “He stood there” (as described in Saving the Queen) “tall and tanned, the straw in his hair blooming after the long winter . . . his thin, molded features without sign of age or strain, his eyes relentlessly intelligent, discerning, blue-frank, blue-cunning.” His longtime inamorata, Sally Strawbridge, and various in-between girlfriends succumb admiringly to the perfect body which Buckley fulsomely describes. Even Oakes’s mother calls him, to his dismay, “my beautiful Blackie.” His glamorous life begins early, when in the dying days of World War II, as an army pilot he shoots down three Kraut ME-109s—even before becoming a Yale freshman.

Recruited straight from Yale into the CIA, he takes to the spy profession seamlessly and spends the rest of his life in its grasp. Of course, he has far more exotic adventures than any real-life agent has ever experienced, carrying him across England, Europe, Russia, Cuba, Bolivia, Vietnam, and into the Oval Office of the White House. The first episode, forever remembered for Oakes’s sleeping with England’s imaginary Queen Caroline, was a delightful lightweight pastiche, a finger exercise for the more serious works that followed. Oakes’s charm and insouciance leads him into her bed, where he discovers that a spy for the Soviets is actually Viscount Peregrine Kirk, a famous English war hero and cousin to the queen. Predicament!—how to expose him without ruinous scandal for the crown. Here we meet for the first time the shadowy figure of Rufus (no last name), who appears out of CIA retirement to quietly but forcefully devise a solution, as he reappears with the same role in subsequent Oakes novels. A brilliantly absurd modern jousting match is staged, fought in the latest jet fighters flown by Oakes (his prop-engine expertise quickly adapted to a new aircraft) against Peregrine, winner take all. As expected, the villain crashes and burns, but Oakes learns that the implacable, duty-bound Rufus held a button that could have reversed the result. A glorious ending ensues, with Oakes giving a eulogy to Peregrine in Westminster Abbey.

His second adventure, Stained Glass (1978), winner of the American Book Award for Best Mystery, enters darker waters and, in the view of Oakes aficionados, presents him with the most serious of the intellectual and moral dilemmas that he faces as a loyal CIA operative. He is assigned to befriend Count Axel von Wintergrin, a charismatic anti-Hitler German aristocrat with a heroic war record who founds a political party campaigning to reunite postwar Germany, a campaign that Oakes personally admires but that runs counter to the official American policy of seeking détente with the Russians to avoid a putative nuclear holocaust. The CIA is eventually instructed to terminate Axel by means of an “accidental” electrocution. Oakes, who has come to revere the young German (while still managing a torrid affair with the brilliant and seductive spy Erika Chadinoff—counterpoint to the beloved Sally back home in Washington), is chosen to lead the execution but arranges to evade actual pushing of the button. But by any standards, he is an accomplice, a role that deeply troubles his conscience, as the novel duly records in a fictional conversation years later with Allen Dulles, the first head of the CIA.

Oakes asks, “Well, Mr. Dulles, did we do the right thing back in 1952?”

Dulles responds, “The question you ask I do not permit, not under any circumstances . . . because, if you let them, the ambiguists will kill you.”

“The ambiguists, as you call them, were dead right about Count Wintergrin . . . you lost the great chance.”

“I believe you are right. I believe Wintergrin was right. The Russians—I believe—would not have moved . . . I don’t believe the lesson to draw is that we must not act because, in acting, we may prove to be wrong.”

Oakes absorbs this edict from the older man and, there being nothing more to say, impulsively shakes his hand. He has learned the hard lesson that governments—or at least the U.S. government—must be deemed wise and just in acting in what they see as their best interests even if all the facts are not—cannot be—known. This lesson will inevitably be taken with a large dose of cynicism by current readers in this year 2010, surrounded by accounts of the immorality, indeed incompetence, of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The present reaction is more often that governments are never wise and just, the only guide being individual conscience. The dialogue between Dulles and Oakes is underlined in the acute 2007 book Strictly Right, whose authors—Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne Jr., Buckley’s close colleagues—quote Bill as saying, “Counterintelligence and espionage, conducted under Western auspices [emphasis added], weren’t exercises in conventional political geometry. They were—they are—a moral art.” Whatever differing view the skeptical reader may choose to take, this is the bedrock philosophy underlying and illuminating all the Blackford Oakes novels.

Another dialogue in Stained Glass, between Oakes and the old-timer Rufus, makes the point even more forcefully about the hard practicalities of espionage work. When told of his expected role in Wintergrin’s death, Oakes asks, “Are you aware that I was never told on joining this outfit that I would be expected to kill people in cold blood? Let alone the leading anti-Communist in Europe?”

Rufus, hard-bitten to the core, responds at length:

“This organization is structured to deal with contingencies. Are you saying that we should have—could have—recruited people disposed to deal with this contingency and trained them to do so? Where would we find them? Just what would we tell them? You aren’t required to do it even now. But I am required to lay it on the line. The fact is that the commander-in-chief of your government, his principal foreign affairs advisor, and the director of the intelligence agency devoted to protecting American interests—our sovereignty—our freedom—feel that situation is critical: that this single man’s activities are about to put the lives and liberties of whole peoples on the line. They despise, as I do, the government [the Soviet Union] that has given us this ultimatum. They cannot even know whether that threat is a bluff. They agreed, finally, that responsible statesmanship forbade taking so awful a risk—conceivably, the risk of millions of people dead. . . .So I put it this way, Blackford. You are the front-line agent of the commander-in-chief. You have been involved in the evolution of the plan. And it was you who drew the card.”

So what could the honorable Blackie do? If he had refused, he would not have been shot, unlike the probable fate for a Russian counterpart, but certainly his resignation from the CIA would have been promptly tendered. This was an action that he, like most red-blooded Americans in the more clear-cut days of 1950s, was unwilling to take. He respected his seniors and admired his country. Shirking duty was not an option, however repulsive to personal morality that duty might seem.

The Blackford Oakes novels are not, thank goodness, philosophical tracts weighing actions in the balance between good and evil and rendering a final judgment. But, as superb fiction, they do show in dramatic terms the intense inner struggles when humans must decide between conflicting choices. And they do, finally, express a firm point of view, which can be accepted or disparaged but certainly does not hinder the flow of action that makes for exciting suspense.

To read the second and final part of this essay, click here.

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