Editor’s note: This is the inaugural installment of our “Why’s this (sentence) so good?” series, in which a writer analyzes a favorite line from a piece of journalistic storytelling. As we explained last week, we’ll fold the series into our regular “Why’s this so good?” series, the archive of which you can read here.
Twenty-four years later, on Wednesday, August 28, at nine-thirty o’clock, in full view of ten million people, the little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions of others, to get a good look at.
The writer: Gore Vidal
The story: “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr.,” published September 1969, in Esquire
The setup: Vidal’s sentence begins an extended annotation of his televised debate against William F. Buckley, Jr., the blusterous godfather of modern American conservatism. The topic of Vidal and Buckley’s debate was the repressive police violence against anti-war protesters at that summer’s Democratic presidential convention, in Chicago, but the moment is best remembered for its creative name-calling. Vidal referred to Buckley, who defended the Chicago police, as a “pro-crypto-Nazi”; in return, Vidal was a “queer.” A year later, the debate moved from television to the glossy pages of Esquire. In August 1969, Buckley published an initial account, “On Experiencing Gore Vidal,” a screed against his opponent’s combative debate tactics. Vidal responded to Buckley with an essay of his own, “A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley Jr.” Shortly after, Buckley waged a successful libel case against Hearst Corporation, Esquire’s owners. When, in 2004, Buckley used the initial libel case to quash a new collection of Esquire essays containing Vidal’s original story, the piece entered into the small library of iconoclastic legend.
Why it’s so good: In this sentence, as throughout his essay, Vidal adopts the precision of a doctor perusing his patient’s wounds. The sentence is a clinical diagnosis. First, Vidal sets his scene: “Twenty-four years later, on Wednesday, August 28, at nine-thirty o’clock, in full view of ten million people…” It has the look and feel of a doctor’s report, but for the too-formal reference to “nine-thirty o’clock.” No one says “nine-thirty o’clock,” except, perhaps, William F. Buckley Jr., whose faux-aristocratic timbre was the only charming feature of his four decades of televised debates.
Next, the symptom. “[T]he little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead” is a subtle phantasmagoria. Of course, Buckley’s forehead contains no actual door. Behind the pretension of “nine-thirty o’clock,” beyond Buckley’s well-groomed brow, something is not quite right. At this moment, the reader shares Vidal’s anticipation of Buckley’s ailment. The symptom is no longer the subject of the physician’s privilege, but of blistering public scrutiny.
Finally, the diagnosis. The “wild cuckoo” — Buckley’s vile homophobia — appears abruptly, without notice. We have no reason to trust Vidal’s confidence in Buckley’s symptom until suddenly, at sentence-end, we do. Or, we think we do. Why would Vidal open Buckley’s cuckoo to the scrutiny of “millions of others” if it weren’t real? As far as the reader is concerned, Vidal’s interest in Buckley, his former debating partner, remains clinical.
Later, the reader discovers that “clinical” is farthest from the truth. Buckley’s first essay provokes emotion, and Vidal responds accordingly, with wistful verve. But for Vidal’s emotion to trump Buckley’s — for his opponent’s tactics to fail — the reader must believe the false objectivity of his observation. With equal parts charm and confidence, his sentence succeeds.
Daniel Solomon is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written for the New York Times, The Awl, and The Week. Follow him at @Dan_E_Solo.