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January 21, 2019

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Bill Buckley as Novelist: The Saga of Blackford Oakes (Part II)
Richard Coulson - 02/11/10
Last Call for Blackford Oakes

This is the second and final part of Richard Coulson’s essay on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Blackford Oakes novels; Part I can be found here.

After Stained Glass, Bill Buckley’s resourcefulness and fictive imagination continued unabated. Blackford’s adventures in service of the CIA become even more extraordinary, though rarely unbelievable. The amorous dalliances thrive with lubricity, replete with “all the beautiful parts of her full body . . . that proceeded to initiate him in the arcadian mysteries, with delirious effect,” while never preventing protestations of love and marriage proposals for the estimable Sally, the sexy and witty scholar of Jane Austen, whom he beds with mutual abandon, surrenders to an up-market Mexican husband, recovers after the husband’s dramatic murder, and finally loses to death—freeing him for one last twilight romance shortly before his own demise. Bill perhaps created Blackie as a vicarious substitute for his own monogamous existence with the ever-fascinating Pat, free of any shadow of gossip for fifty-seven years despite his undoubted masculine charms.

Inevitably, some of his books seem livelier than others, and every reader, this one included, will have his favorites. Of the next six Blackford Oakes chronicles, published from 1980 through 1987, four memorialize the Cold War as played out against Russia mainly on the European stage, while two use the ever-intriguing Cuban Communist regime as their foil. All of them contain marvelous set-pieces in the Washington corridors of power. In Who’s on First (1980), we overhear a splendid imagined conversation between the witty, acerbic former secretary of state Dean Acheson and the devious CIA boss, Allen Dulles, who seems to much prefer exchanging iconoclastic views with Acheson than with the incumbent secretary, his tedious, moralizing older brother, John Foster. In Mongoose R.I.P. (1987), we are put inside JFK’s head for a long end-of-day soliloquy about the burdens of the presidency and how to assassinate Fidel Castro because “we can’t let the fucker stay around,” before he’s reminded that the first lady expects him at seven. We continually meet the somber, reserved Rufus as he is dragged out of retirement once again to contribute his levelheaded brain to water down harebrained schemes. The poor man has little time between missions to cultivate his beloved roses.

Throughout these and other books, Bill enjoys leavening his fabricated stories with coded clues to the cognoscenti about his actual lifetime. Clandestine meetings are held at the Chateau St. Firmin in the French countryside. This is in fact the handsome building, still standing across the decorative lake from the famous Chateau de Chantilly, that Bill’s expansive father rented as a family residence in the 1930s. Bill provides the singular name Valerian Bibikoff for one of his minor characters. This is the unforgettable “Bibi,” the ingenious Paris-based White Russian who answered the call of many Buckleys, as when he somehow found two vehicles for Bill’s brother Jim and Yale friends to drive around Europe in 1949, long before rental agencies surfaced. One of them was a liberated German army staff car, still wearing its camouflage paint, that caused not a little comment as it traveled Europe’s war-torn roads. Even the sacrosanct Skull and Bones, Bill’s Yale secret society, becomes fair game. When Oakes checks into a Mexico City hotel, he is given room 322, the iconic number of mysterious origin that appears in all Bones history.

Of these six books in the middle range of the series, two stand out: The Story of Henry Tod (1984) and the dreadfully named, but best-selling, See You Later, Alligator (1985). In Tod, Oakes of course plays a role but is hardly the lead actor. Bill creates one of his most sympathetic, tragic characters in the man originally known as Heinrich Toddweiss, a Jewish lad who is abruptly torn away first from his mother and father and later from beloved younger sister, Clementa (they share a bedroom and call each other king and queen of their own closed kingdom), when his foster parents spirit him out of wartime Germany to escape the threatened Nazi roundups of the Jewish population. His guardian in England enrolls him in the top London secondary school St. Paul’s, where his athletic prowess and scholarly abilities make him head prefect by 1944. Every day he writes to Clementa. Enjoined never to say a word about his background or escape from Germany, on a celebration night he fatally drinks too much beer and reveals his clandestine history to a close friend, who swears undying secrecy but happens to be the son of a garrulous journalist.

The inevitable result unfolds with the certainty of a Greek tragedy. Three weeks later, Tod’s mentor tells him that his German saviors have been shot by the Gestapo and Clementa put on a train headed for Poland—and Auschwitz. Tod abandons St. Paul’s and vanishes from his mentor to spend five years as a Leeds coal miner, immersing himself every night in the study of philosophy, enabling him to be successfully examined by a surprised Cambridge University professor. Advanced degree in hand, Tod returns to Germany three years later, in 1953. Bill recounts this remarkable pilgrimage in spare, unadorned language, allowing the circumstances themselves to tell of Tod’s initial heartbroken misery and his subsequent resilience and tough-minded determination to resist intimacy. His writing here achieves a mastery of understated emotion, an elegant austerity bereft of any flowery sentiments.

It is not until 1961 that Oakes, assigned to Berlin, meets Tod. He is immediately captivated. In a reprise of Wintergrin’s campaign ten years earlier, the Semitic Tod has by force of leadership created the Bruderschaft (“brotherhood”), a small but effective society of anti-Communist Germans determined on the downfall of the German Democratic Republic and its chairman, Walter Ulbricht, operating out of his grim headquarters in East Berlin. The immediate issue is Ulbricht’s determination to prevent the ceaseless outflow of his citizens to the beguiling West, by building what will become the famous Berlin Wall. Tod believes the United States will back his “Operation Rheingold” to deploy tanks to nip its construction in the bud. Alas, he misconceives the international climate: Jack Kennedy vetoes any help and an arrest warrant is issued for Tod as the Rheingold plan collapses and the Bruderschaft disintegrates.

But Tod learns that his sister did not die in Auschwitz but survived in Russian captivity and is in fact being held in the eastern zone. Oakes, against all CIA rules, and suspecting a trap, nevertheless agrees to take Tod to the family rendezvous. It is indeed a trap: before he can lay eyes on his long-lost sister, Tod is shot dead. Oakes makes the final gesture of carrying his bloody corpse through the barriers back into West Berlin. In a subsequent gathering in the Kennedy Cape Cod compound, Bill wields the superb ironic touch of having the president lift his wine glass and give the quiet toast “Let’s drink to Rheingold,” adding a moment later, “Too bad.”

Too bad indeed, as Tod lost not only his political dream but also his dream of embracing his sister once again. But wonderful in permitting Bill Buckley to write perhaps his finest tale. Weaving amidst the main plot, Bill inserts ingenious gems like using Hitler’s plush railroad car, long abandoned on a siding in the East Berlin yards, as a hiding place for a wounded Tod, and giving us the lowdown on Ulbricht’s touchy dealings with his Soviet masters and his own family, one of whom he calmly orders executed. But it’s the unforgettable Henry Tod who dominates one’s memory. As the title says, it is truly his story.


For his next Oakes adventure, Bill was able to rapidly shift gears from Berlin to Cuba. Blackie is dispatched, via a navy voyage to Guantanamo, a midnight border crossing, and a DC-3 flight to an obscure airport near Havana, to continue negotiations with Che Guevara that had been previously begun in Montevideo by presidential envoy Richard Goodwin. Lodged in a beachfront bungalow, Oakes must sweatily wait many days before Che deigns to appear. Suffice it to say that the negotiations over nine months go nowhere, but Bill treats us to an engaging series of conversational sparring matches, usually won by the highly educated Che, the recognized intellectual godfather of the Revolution. He has read Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica; Blackie’s Yale education did not extend that far. He lectures loftily that there is no Spanish translation for “disappointing”—“It is a distinctively English, meiotic expression.” All this is done through a knockout female translator for Che, and a wizened little Spaniard for Oakes. These two bit players soon become, as we shall see, virtually the stars of the Alligator drama (so titled, by the way, because that reptile is a rough translation of the Spanish caimán, which Che uses as the name of the operation and often leaves Oakes with the valedictory “Hasta luego, Caimán,” or, God help us, “See you later, alligator”).

Although Oakes successfully performs his usual derring-do, the true hero of the book is the Spanish translator, bearing the name Cecilio Velasco. In another of Bill’s beautifully conceived back stories told with lapidary simplicity, we learn that Velasco was born Raúl Carrera in Barcelona, a slight but articulate youngster toughened by a prison sentence, and old enough to be caught up by the Communist faction in Spain’s Civil War. He becomes a loyal, diligent party member and is transferred to Moscow for rigorous KGB training, and then on to the massive Russian embassy in Mexico City, where he assists the executioners of Leon Trotsky. But his epiphany comes when the loathsome KGB boss Colonel Ochek directs him to make a bomb to explode in the ambassador’s aircraft—and puts Raúl’s fiancée on the same plane. After watching the plane disintegrate in the Mexican sky, the distraught man returns to the embassy and uses his bare hands to kill Ochek. He immediately flees to the American border and turns himself over to the CIA, who accept him as a reliable defector and change his name to Cecilio Velasco. Only five feet tall, and never without a cigarette in his lips, by the time he accompanies Oakes to Cuba he’s a fully trained intelligence operative, coolly discovering and eliminating a spy code clerk in the Swiss embassy.

He watches warily as Oakes gradually falls for Che’s translator, the seductive Catalina, who learned her sexual wiles from Havana’s leading madam. When the mission to Cuba is reduced, Velasco is ordered to return to Washington. The older man looks up at Oakes and leaves these parting words: “And be careful. Do not trust Guevara.” And under his breath, “Or Catalina.” Eventually, turning against the Revolution, she leads Oakes to the discovery of concealed Russian missiles. But they are both discovered, arrested, and sentenced to death by Che with Castro’s approval. Locked in a truck en route to execution, they are saved by the last-minute cavalry—in the form of the diminutive, bearded Velasco uniformed as a Cuban colonel. Velasco never actually left the country, but organized a team of anti-Castro guerillas into a strike force. His team surrounds the truck and shoots the official guards, and he whisks Oakes and Catalina to a nearby dock, where a fishing boat will take them all to Florida. Not that simple: Che, livid at losing his captives, sets the Cuban air force and navy into vigorous pursuit. Oakes has time to radio a message to Washington about the missiles just before their craft is overtaken and captured by a patrol vessel and Velasco is killed in a gunfight. Oakes, a handcuffed prisoner again, “wept convulsively¸ wondering how ever it would have been feasible to engage in this surrealistic, impossible venture without his compañero, the little cigarette-smoking Spanish-American who wrote the book of courage.”

Oakes, returned to a Cuban prison, of course survives, released at the insistence of JFK, while Catalina, though promised clemency by Che, is shot.

Five years later, Oakes is in Bolivia, summoned to visit Che, who has been captured and is under order of execution. The Bolivian colonel offers Oakes the option of taking Che for the U.S. government: “He is your prisoner—or our corpse.” Oakes is given three minutes to decide. He recalls how Che betrayed Catalina, and calmly says, “He is yours, Colonel.” As he walks away, he hears two shots.

So Blackford Oakes proves that in addition to being a fair-haired Yalie, he can be one tough son of a bitch practicing “vengeance is mine.” Perhaps he learned the lesson from the unbreakable Cecilio Velasco, another of Bill’s brilliant creations who outshines the leading man.

A Code of Behavior

After a quick workout crushing the Cambridge spy circle selling British secrets to Russia, in High Jinx (1986), Bill returns Oakes to the Cuban scene in the following year’s Mongoose, R.I.P., all about JFK’s futile, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic attempts to kill Castro and the latter’s attempts to reciprocate by firing Russian-operated ballistic missiles. In a suspenseful ending, a missile is launched but destroyed, and Castro gets his wish through the agency of the lone sniper Lee Harvey Oswald. The book has well-limned episodes in Cuba, Washington, and Moscow, but is marred by events that carry coincidence past its breaking point: “Consuelo,” the anti-Castro agent in Mexico, is, unknown to Oakes, actually Tony Morales, the prominent lawyer who has married Sally; at a picnic table rendezvous with Oakes he is mistakenly shot dead by a Cuban gunman who intended Oakes as his target, allowing Oakes to guiltlessly reclaim his lost love—a package too neatly tied for reality.

The penultimate Blackford Oakes novel, A Very Private Plot (1994), is staged as a lengthy flashback. In the same year of publication, Oakes is being questioned by a Senate committee demanding answers about confidential missions directed by President Ronald Reagan ten years earlier. Oakes refuses even to take the oath, clearly showing his disdain (and of course, Bill’s) for congressional investigations of covert intelligence operations ordered by the chief executive. The flashback tells us that in 1985 a group of admirably courageous young Russians calling themselves the New Narodniki, disillusioned veterans of the hopeless Afghanistan campaign and Soviet policies of repression, determine to assassinate First Secretary Gorbachev. Through his long-developed Moscow contact known as Cyclops, only Oakes in the CIA is given the full story, which he duly reports to President Reagan. Just at this time Reagan feels he is making progress with Gorby toward nuclear disarmament and certainly does not want him dead.

In a couple of artfully crafted one-on-one conversations between Oakes and the president, they try fruitlessly to square the circle. Reagan rhetorically asks, “Is it our responsibility to protect a foreign tyrant from his own people?” Pressed for his opinion, Oakes responds, “I would leave the matter alone”—in other words, let the Narodniki proceed. Reagan sighs and merely says, “I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow.” But after a productive conference between the two leaders in Iceland, Oakes finds the wind has changed direction. Breaking a moment of silence, Reagan slowly says, “We’ve got to stop this Cyclops business.”

Oakes seeks clarification: “You mean you want me to call the whole thing off. . . . The only sure way is for Cyclops to turn them in to the KGB.” The president says nothing, does not move his gaze up from the desk until he takes Oakes’s extended hand. “Blackford saw the sadness in the eyes,” Buckley writes. “It meant that he knew the full consequences of his decision.”

So Oakes has been given an order never explicitly stated, and, heartsick, he immediately leaves for Moscow to make sure it is executed. He forces the unwilling Cyclops to inform the KGB about the Narodniki plot, using the threat that if it is not done immediately, he will himself expose his old sparring partner Cyclops to the KGB as a mole for the CIA. Once again Oakes proves to be a tough son of a bitch, and once again he must subordinate his personal views to the iron duty of obeying his commander in chief.

In considering this repeated moral conflict in the Blackford Oakes series, it should not be overlooked that Bill Buckley himself spent very little time as a CIA employee, with no access to inner thoughts at the higher levels of Langley. He served only, under station head Howard Hunt, as a junior functionary in the Mexican embassy for nine months after leaving Yale, certainly never partaking of the menu of vivid exploits that were Oakes’s daily fare. His descriptions of CIA operations are based not on personal experience but solely on imagination—brilliant imagination, but still imagination.

A contrasting view may be found in the 2008 book Why Vietnam Matters by Rufus Phillips, a Yale contemporary of Bill’s who barely met him. Phillips was also drafted into the CIA, serving several years (but not, he assured me, as the model for the fictional Rufus) and later in the Agency for International Development, mainly in Vietnam and Laos. Phillips greatly admired his colleague the legendary Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, an expert in unconventional warfare who became a confidant of the first Vietnamese prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, and a somewhat marginalized adviser to the U.S. embassy in Saigon. According to a story Phillips related from a reliable source, in 1963 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered Lansdale to accompany him to a meeting with President Kennedy, who asked, “If I decided that we had to get rid of Diem himself, would you be able to go along with that?” Lansdale replied sadly, “No, Mr. President, I couldn’t do that. Diem is my friend.” The president expressed no anger or surprise, but reportedly McNamara was furious with Lansdale, saying, “You don’t talk to the president of the United States that way. When he asks you to do something, you don’t tell him you won’t do it.” The defense secretary never spoke to him again. Later that year Lansdale retired as a full major general and in 1965 served the Saigon embassy again, before becoming the third recipient of the U.S. National Security Medal. Apparently disobedience to presidential inclinations did not trouble his conscience or destroy his career. An old friend told Phillips that “one of Ed’s unique qualities was his ability to say no to anything he believed wrong, no matter who was asking it.” Clearly not every public servant felt constrained to follow Blackford Oakes’s code of behavior.

End of the Line

After completing the first ten books of the Blackford Oakes saga, in 1995 Bill produced The Blackford Oakes Reader. Strangely, Oakes himself scarcely appears in this volume, starring only in an excerpt from Saving the Queen. Instead, we find reprints of the back stories of leading characters from the other nine novels, including our old friends Axel Wintergrin, Henri Tod, and Cecilio Velasco. It’s as if Bill wanted to be remembered not so much as the creator of the quintessential American golden boy who survives every crisis (perhaps a bit boring and too much like himself), but rather as able to conjure up an extraordinary variety of exotic creatures from many corners of the globe. Imagining and putting flesh and blood on these personalities was a much greater test of the novelist’s art than simply redrawing an honorable Ivy League graduate, a type that was second nature to him.

This estimable ambition on Bill’s part leads to perhaps an impudent question: could he who had done so much actually have done more? The publishers’ blurbs for his novels print innumerable reviewers’ snippets in the vein: “Tense, chilling, unflaggingly lively . . . the tales get better and better.” “Stamped with hallmark of his sardonic elegance.” “An absolute delight of a book.” “Almost alone in using genuine political mischief as a source of wit.” “Buckley once again successfully intermingles the real with the fictional.” But all this enthusiastic praise still restricts the Oakes chronicles to the realm of spy stories, thrillers, “entertainments” in Graham Greene’s definition, without moving them across the indefinable line distinguishing “serious fiction,” where literary pundits place the likes of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, and John Updike. Who cares? Bill sought only to create entertainments, of the highest caliber, so why expect anything different? True—and yet . . .

We observe Bill’s superb talents and intellectual resources: knack for plotting and sharp dialogue, curiosity over details, wide grasp of history and current events, feeling for the cultures of art and music, and, above all, fascination and sympathy for the eccentric losers in a tough society. He had everything he needed to become a great novelist—except time. Even this he could have created. Suppose he had carved out a full year from his busy life, retreated to the green solitude of the family compound in Sharon, given up columns, speeches, witticisms with Henry Kissinger, advice to the White House (where in any event the spigot of invitations had slowed to a trickle under Bush Junior). We would never have expected, or wanted, Bill to become an Updike-like homebody quietly devoted to honing his ever-changing literary style. His genes, derived from a buccaneer father who cheerfully made and lost fortunes, would have prevented that fate. And he too much enjoyed being “of the world” to retreat permanently into the realm of pure thought. But we know he was a man of immense will power and discipline in his writing schedule. If he could have freed himself for one year from his two-month novel deadlines and his frantic schedule of other commitments, could he have stretched his abilities to give us a deeper strain of creativity, covering the modern world with the ambiguities of, say, Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes or The Secret Agent, or the scope of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain? One of his more perceptive critics, Joseph Kanon, in a New York Times review of Bill’s historical novel Nuremberg: The Reckoning, uncovers his basic shortcoming: “Buckley has never been drawn to character or moral irony (much less relativism) in his fiction, precisely the qualities that would be welcome here”—and in any novel of broader scope than Blackie’s adventures.

Alas, we will never know. We can only speculate what might have been, and meanwhile enjoy the actual written record in the genre he chose—an output far superior to the superficial James Bond repetitions and matching le Carré’s protean brilliance. Of course, Blackford Oakes never became the pop-cult figure equivalent to Bond, never was memorialized on film by the inimitable Sean Connery. Perhaps Bond’s very simplicity—sex and violence served with style but no discernible political philosophy—was easier for a vast public to grasp, while Oakes remained a taste for specialists. It’s interesting that Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, never became a public figure with a strong separate image, while the opposite is true of William F. Buckley Jr., who achieved fame based on far more than Blackford Oakes.

Bill’s final Oakes novel, Last Call for Blackford Oakes (2005), shows no declining powers. The suspense, ingenious twists of plot, and hard-edged dialogue surrender nothing to its ten predecessors. Oakes, now a widower, semiretired at age sixty, is again dispatched to Moscow on secret orders from President Reagan to defuse another possible threat to Gorbachev, under the guise of being publisher Harry Doubleday attending a book fair. For the first time, however, the story leads to tragedy for Oakes, no longer the survivor golden boy. He falls deeply in love with a Russian lady, whom he impregnates and plans to marry. She dies in a Moscow hospital, apparently the victim of an ectoptic pregnancy (as Pat had once suffered) but in reality medically murdered at the behest of one “Andre Fyodorich Martins,” who has entertained Oakes before being revealed as the odious British traitor Kim Philby, adopted as a permanent resident by the Soviet regime. Philby and Oakes are of course bitter enemies, on opposite sides of ideology and sense of honor. The eventual grim denouement can almost be anticipated: a brief, bloody shootout that kills Oakes, but not before he gets off a round that seriously wounds the archenemy Philby.

This remarkable coda to the Oakes saga was praised by New York Times reviewer Charlie Rubin: “may be the best Oakes since the first . . . validates Buckley’s considerable fiction skills.” Sadly, this encomium did not contribute to sales, which fell below those of all its ancestors. Perhaps Oakes’s eleven-year absence from the bookstores had lost him many of his fans, or tastes had simply changed. In fact, many Buckley watchers wondered why Bill had written it, long after the Cold War had ended and he himself had laid down many of his literary cudgels. They thought that 1994’s A Very Private Plot had all the marks of a finale.

He never gave his reasons. Perhaps he wanted an inflexible ending for Oakes that would discourage any impostors from resurrecting him after Bill’s own passing. Perhaps the cutoff was simply part of the simplification he decreed for his own life. At his farewell speech at the 2003 annual Bohemian Grove encampment, where he had enjoyed many summers as a Hill Billy with the cream of the American establishment, he firmly stated that this would be his final appearance. He alluded to “terminal thoughts” that suddenly led to abandonment of even the exhilaration of downhill skiing. It was about this time that he sold his trim cruising sloop Patito, allegedly because he couldn’t find crew—but more likely because the time for sailing was simply one of the ages of man that had come to an end. With his intensely rational mind, as his health and energy began to fail he could shuck off inessentials and retreat to his core.

One thing seems pretty certain: as he suffered through his last months—immobilized and wheezing with emphysema; no longer succored by Pat, who had predeceased him, in 2007; knowing that death was not far—he must have thought of the glorious career of Blackie, vigorous to the end and dying the only way a man should: from a bullet fired while battling the enemy, the quintessential Evil Empire. His alter ego was fictional, but was his own creation: the Blackford Oakes that he himself had brought to life.

To learn more about William F. Buckley Jr., visit the ISI short course on American Conservative Thought.

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