Empathy and Intelligence: Regarding “The Incomparable” Messrs. Buckley and Baldwin

William F. Buckley was always one of those conservatives it was good for liberals to keep abreast of. Liberal arguments for an expansive government role in American life had to go through Buckley’s mixture of cultured intellectual gravitas, take-no-prisoners debate skills and slightly mischievous humor, all of which made for a formidable presence across the American cultural landscape in the second half of the 20th century.

Buckley died in 2008 at age 82, less than a year after Pat, his socialite wife of 56 years, passed on and left him desolate. He died, however, in the wake of a life that had shaped the history of his era in ways that reverberate to this day. That impact is ably and entertainingly chronicled in a currently streaming (through May 3) PBS documentary entitled, “The Incomparable Mr. Buckley.”

Last fall, I finally caught up via YouTube to the famous 1965 debate between Buckley and the equally-but-differently-brilliant black writer James Baldwin, held before a student group at England’s Cambridge University. The combatants were charged with addressing the proposition: “Is the American Dream At the Expense of the American Negro?”

‘One simple question Mr. Buckley: Have you ever gone hungry?’ To which Buckley replied, ‘Why, yes. My yacht experienced an unfortunate shortage of stuffed goose recently off Nassau in the Bahamas.’

I’d been mulling a post on that event alone ever since, well worth my attention as a piece of time travel to behold not only its intellectual fireworks, but also the beating, wounded-but-eloquent heart that informed Baldwin’s address that day and, indeed, his entire life’s work.

And what became clear as the debate progressed was just how inaccessible and inscrutable those wounds were to Buckley, reared from birth as the very picture of upper crust white privilege. (He “lost” the debate by an audience vote of 544-164.) The reasons for this became all the more evident after viewing the Buckley documentary.

Buckley’s father was an international oil tycoon who moved his family from Mexico to France to England through his son’s early years. Along the way, William learned to speak Spanish and French before he mastered, with his inimitable high-brow accent, what would later become his native tongue.

A telling detail appeared in a lovely 1985 obituary for his mother that Buckley published in “National Review,” the magazine that became a kind of must-read bible of the conservative movement after he founded it in 1955. He wrote, “Father was the unchallenged source of authority at home, she was unchallengeably in charge of arrangements in a house crowded with ten children and as many tutors, servants, and assistants.”

More detail: Their Connecticut home furnishings (when they were not on holiday at their South Carolina estate) included six pianos so the children taking lessons from visiting tutors at any given time would have easy and consistent access.

One more: Years later, after a Buckley guest lecture at Cornell University, a student stood during the Q&A session and asked, “One simple question Mr. Buckley: Have you ever gone hungry?”

To which Buckley replied, “Why, yes. My yacht experienced an unfortunate shortage of stuffed goose recently off Nassau in the Bahamas.”

There is more than a hint of cruelty and dismissiveness in that humorously proffered retort, but it was vintage Buckley.

As the Cambridge debate neared its conclusion and Buckley inveighed against “the failure of the Negro community itself to make certain exertions which were made by other minority groups during the American experience,” I couldn’t help but think when the camera caught Baldwin listening wide-eyed that he might be hearkening back to his ancestors brought over on slave ships a few centuries earlier, often or likely always hungry, “exerting” themselves on plantations under the close gaze of their overseers.

Was it possible their heirs were among the “servants” gainfully employed by Madam Buckley and her husband in the care and nourishment of their brood?



I sometimes think of intelligence as an octopus with an infinite number of legs. Various theoreticians have proposed a specific number or “types” of intelligence—three, six, eight—but suffice to say that intelligence has long been thought to encompass a number of aptitudes and traits, and it is a rare person indeed (my guess: no one, ever…) who possesses every form of intelligence relevant to humankind.

For our purposes here, I will cite the formulation of the Santa Barbara, California-based Foundation for Critical Thinking (FCT), which lists eight “valuable intellectual traits”  we do well to cultivate:
1) intellectual humility, 2) intellectual courage, 3) intellectual empathy, 4) intellectual autonomy,
5) intellectual integrity, 6) intellectual perseverance, 7) confidence in reason, 8) fairmindedness.

Some of those are no doubt related and all of them likely have multiple possible sub-categories, but let me present the third trait of “intellectual empathy” in full. It will help underscore what I trust will probe but some of the differences between Baldwin and Buckley, which by my lights, made their encounter even more meaningful and relevant for American history right up to the present day than it may have appeared at first blush. Here’s the FCT entry:

Intellectual Empathy: Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.

Now: by all accounts, Buckley was a doting, loving son, brother and father, and a loyal friend. He had one child, the writer Christopher Buckley, and his friendship circle included a number of political liberals he differed drastically with on virtually every issue of the day.

That said, to listen to his Cambridge debate oratory—high-minded and abstract when it wasn’t so offensive as to make many in the audience gasp—is to behold a kind of cluelessness to everything Baldwin had said.

Truly, these men inhabited different “systems of reality” (Baldwin’s words), rarely if ever their twains to meet. But it was Baldwin, doleful-eyed with his heart on his sleeve and his copious brain translating its every utterance into a plea for understanding of just what his people had faced every day over hundreds of years in a white-dominated culture, who won the audience’s favor.

And I couldn’t help but think that was largely because Baldwin had never been able to leave his heart and soul at any door he entered for fear of it too, being stolen from him just as his ancestors’ bodies had been. (Shades of the Rhiannon Giddens post from two weeks ago.)

A longish excerpt from his address, which was greeted with an unprecedented 90-second standing ovation upon its completion:

It comes as a great shock, around the age of five or six or seven, to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance along with everybody else has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock that the country which is your birth place, and to which you owe your life and identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you. The disaffection. The demoralization. And the gap between one person and another, only on the basis of the colour of their skin, begins there. And accelerates, accelerates throughout a whole lifetime.

You realize that you’re thirty, and having a terrible time managing to trust your countrymen. By the time you are thirty, you have been through a certain kind of mill. And the most serious effect of the mill you’ve been through is again, not the catalogue of disaster: the policemen, the taxi drivers, the waiters, the landlady, the landlord, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details. Twenty-four hours of every day, which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. 

It is not that, because by that time you have begun to see it happening in your daughter or your son or your niece or your nephew. You are thirty by now and nothing you have done has helped you escape the trap. What is worse than that is that nothing you have done, and as far as you can tell nothing you can do, will save your son or your daughter from meeting the same disaster, or coming to the same end. 

The fact that Baldwin, arguably as fine a writer and thinker as America has ever produced, could still feel—with the intensity he did—all the privations of being black in America is a sobering hint of just what his fellow, far-less endowed brothers and sisters had endured as the basic facts of existence in a country still deep in the throes of Jim Crow and the continuing “Lost Cause” romanticism of the Confederacy. (Here in North Carolina in 2024, to traverse the gorgeous countryside is to periodically encounter Confederate flags, and we are hardly the exception in these Southern states.)

In response, Buckley drew the first of several groans from the audience by asserting that Baldwin’s book, “The Fire Next Time,” somehow “threatened” America. It did anything but, actually asserting a great deal of compassion for those whites caught in the snare of racial hatred he feared would, in the end, shrivel them more certainly than it would the targets of their hatred.

Then came Buckley’s curious assertion that Baldwin “didn’t in that book speak with the British accent which he used exclusively tonight.” The ad hominem attack was not only rude and likely in violation of formal debate rules, but also absurd—how exactly does one write in an accent, British or otherwise?


James Baldwin


Buckley did make several feints toward expressing “concern for the Negro problem,” but winds up asking several times, “What shall we (the white population) do, what would you have us do?” His tone was of a hands-thrown-up-in-the-air exasperation, to which one audience member finally responded, One thing you might do, Mr. Buckley, is let them vote in Mississippi!”

Buckley seizes on this to more or less refine his previously stated position (detailed just below) by eliciting nervous laughter to the following:

“I think actually what is wrong in Mississippi, sir, is not that not enough Negroes are voting, but that too many white people are voting. Preparation to vote is the thing, not the vote itself. I would lift the standards so as to disqualify 65% of the white people to vote.

He repeated more or less that formulation multiple times in subsequent years, fully owning up to his long-held royalist view that only an “elect” educated class (presumably with the money for six-piano homes and even more tutors) should control the destiny of the unwashed masses.

And yet: A mere eight years earlier, his broadsides against the lower classes were far more racially focused in an absolutely incendiary “National Review” editorial (“Why the South Must Prevail”), wherein he baldly stated,

“The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.”

Buckley walked a good deal of that back in later years, and there with reports from intimates that he reached a turning point after weeping for the four young black girls killed in the infamous Birmingham church bombing in 1963.

Still, the Baldwin debate at which he ridiculed the lack of black “exertion” was still two years in the future, he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and in Birmingham, he had defended police “restraint” after Sheriff Bull Connor unleashed German shepherds, billy clubs and fire hoses on the peaceful demonstrators, adding that the South could “do without massive infusions of Northern moralism.”

And for decades after the Baldwin debate, Buckley offered variations on the following story, as chronicled in the 2019 book on the debate, “The Fire  Is Upon Us,” by Nicholas Buccola:

“He would claim—falsely—that Baldwin received a standing ovation before ‘he had uttered a single word,’ and would explain that the vote was so lopsided because Baldwin ‘was a black; he hated America; [and] he was a religious skeptic and a homosexual.’ The students voted for Baldwin, Buckley surmised, not because he was right or offered superior arguments but because they wanted to affirm his identity and join him in ‘deplor[ing] the United States.'”

The allusion to Baldwin’s homosexuality is no casual aside; Buckley never left his staunch traditional Catholicism behind as so many others had post-Vatican II. He sounded nary a note of compassion as AIDS ravaged the gay population through the 1980s and ’90s, and In a rare outburst of fury, he looked as if he might come to blows with longtime rival Gore Vidal, a gay novelist and free-range liberal intellectual of the time who had almost playfully been goading Buckley during a broadcast discussion at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Suppressing an urge to leap to his feet, Buckley smoldered, “Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” 


So, you’ve no doubt figured out by now what all this comes to with respect to the aforementioned “intellectual empathy.” Bon vivant and happy family man that he was, Buckley appears never to have quite escaped the severely, intentionally insular world of his childhood years, which, far from any yearning to cast off in some assertion of independence, he clung to stubbornly and returned to whenever that world was challenged.

Not that different, really, than the antebellum South, with its estates and servants, its old ways of paternalistic “service” in managing the lives of their inferiors, whom they judged could not yet work with the rigor and effort of their masters, but someday might, if they but follow their example and truly apply themselves.

The assumption that the gifted and gilded know their inferiors’ lives, abilities and dreams and are thus qualified to rule over them is but one of the intellectual deficits that upper classes are prone to when no meaningful interaction takes place across class, culture and racial lines.

This seems to have been Buckley’s fatal flaw, a blind spot that made it appear he didn’t truly comprehend a word Baldwin had said in their now iconic encounter.

For all his other intelligences, Buckley simply couldn’t grasp the reality of life for those less gifted and fortunate than he was, lacking the emotional empathy that would have allowed him to listen and imagine his way into their lives. Whether that was a deficit of genetics, culture, some combination or something else entirely is impossible to say.

In the end, he was a brilliant and influential but flawed human, able to accomplish much but harness something less than complete command of the eight “valuable intellectual traits.”

In that respect at least, he’s a brother of ours, as Baldwin would no doubt agree.


I didn’t get a chance to discuss in my recent post on Rhiannon Giddens that Martha Redbone appeared with her as well, so I’m glad to feature her here…

The documentary, 1 hr. 40 minutes…

The Incomparable Mr. Buckley – Watch the documentary now


The debate: 58 minutes, though many condensed versions are available on YouTube…


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Buckley headshot top of page courtesy of Business To Business magazine, Tallahassee, Florida

Hand to hand by Marco Chilese, “Italian in Darmstadt, Germany” https://unsplash.com/@chmarco

James Baldwin by European, the European Union   https://unsplash.com/@europeana

13 comments to Empathy and Intelligence: Regarding “The Incomparable” Messrs. Buckley and Baldwin

  • Mary  says:

    Both productions are so worthy of our time and attention, prompting a deep consideration of any true “progress “ that has been achieved since that debate: in the United States (and the issues hardly restricted to the South) and indeed across the world.

    So many of us chafe at Buckley’s superior attitude yet we are so clearly in thrall to all he stands for: the houses and yachts, the lifestyle, the Ivy League education, skiing in Switzerland (yearly, not on any bucket list)…we can’t stand it and see, if dimly the whole structure that allows it to continue, and…we lust for it mightily.

    Enter the discussion about 3/4 through the documentary where the discussion shifts to how Buckley left the door wide open to the American culture wars, still raging furiously. So we stumble into 2024, where the elite leader of these culture wars posits he is both patrician and a common man, has all we lust after but is really one of “us” and joins, eggs, prompts the divide. I don’t think he’s ever been hungry either.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks Mary, I think what I most appreciate about comments is how often they fill in gaps I didn’t cover or expand upon points I only half-made. The question of “progress” in racial matters is such a mixed bag, yes? In one corner of that bag, the ascendance of blacks and other minority groups in virtually every sphere of American life. In the other, both a ferocious, enduring backlash (the Proud Boys hailed as “very fine people” by the president of the United States), and from the far left, speech codes and cancel culture. Sigh…

      And then the fine parlor game of exactly what Buckley would have done with the ex-president, oh my…I suspect he would have noted him as a wannabe upper crust vulgarian, but perhaps useful for his larger purposes. I didn’t even mention Buckley’s defense of Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts, and he was a full-throated Barry Goldwater man before he realized he would lose and publicly said as much even before the election. And he loved and wholly supported Ronald Reagan, certainly no intellectual, but of a sunny disposition and rock-solid conservative “values” that are truly lacking in the ex-prez, who is surely as value-free as any president in our history. It would have been interesting to have heard Buckley intone on all this from the heavens over the past eight years, the populist and increasingly pro-Russia strain of his party no doubt rattling his bones, but on the other hand, more tax cuts for the wealthy and a Supreme Court probably much more to his liking than it otherwise would have been. Complicated!—as always….

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Excellent and thoroughly researched blog on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. I loved reading it. The links perfectly complemented your words. Incidentally, about two months ago I watched James Baldwin’s “I Am Not Your Negro”, a sobering documentary on racism in America. He didn’t hold out much hope for the future. He felt racism was too ingrained in the American experience and psyche.

    A comparison between Robert F. Kennedy and Buckley is an interesting one. Both were white, born just four days apart, privileged New Englanders, Ivy League alums, and Irish Catholic. Surprisingly, until he became Attorney-General, Kennedy like Buckley lacked a real understanding of racism. He considered the Irish problem with the British as a twin with the Black struggle in America. He stated his family, which faced prejudice in Boston, overcame it, and inferred Blacks could do the same with hard work and perseverance. He was naive. In the last decade of his life, he evolved into a more compassionate and enlightened individual. He admitted neither color nor slavery were part of his experience, both obstacles far more difficult to surmount. He never saw an “Irish Only” drinking fountain. He was never refused service at a restaurant. He never was forced to sit in the back of a bus. And his ancestors were never brought over in chains. Buckley, it seems, never really got it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m so very glad you brought up the Kennedy-Buckley comparison, Robert; I hadn’t put those two pivotal figures of the era together, but it is a highly relevant citation indeed, so thank you! As bad as JFK’s assassination was, one could make the case that from a historical perspective, RFK’s was even more damaging to our evolving history, for two main reasons, I think. One was that RFK, just as you suggest, seemed to evolve as a human being as his life and campaign went on; I can remember myself even at 17 noting how much pure heart the guy seemed to have, as if he’d seen some kind of promised land where he knew he wanted to take the country, and it was all coming together with his win in the California primary that night and his victory speech. Moments later, he was dead (I was watching on TV), and the air and heart seemed to go right out of the country.

      Which begets the second point: RFK would almost certainly have won the nomination and beaten the Republican in November. Instead, we got Richard Nixon, the Southern strategy, Cambodia, and these decades later, the ongoing Trumpian nightmare. Would it all have been different? Of course. How much different? Therein lies fodder for a fine novelist, ala Philip Roth with his imagining of Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency in 1940 (“The Plot Against America,” though reimagining RFK winning would have been the reverse image of Lindbergh).

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Buckley clearly lacked intellectual empathy with respect to the race issue (and, I suspect, many other issues). He was also bereft of humility of any kind, including intellectual. What strikes me in reading and observing his thoughts and arguments in 2024, however insidious many of them are, is that they were grounded in a keen intellect; something we no longer witness from the conservative wing of political thought currently (The Supremes most recently reflected the absence of clear thinking and intellect coming from right). Though alarmed and disgusted by much of Buckley’s views, I found myself taking at least some solace in his articulation of a reasoned argument. Compare this to our current spate of MGT, Jimmy Jordan, Gaetz, Boebert, and MAGA Supremes. The expression of racism, loss of empathy and dignity has taken a huge downward turn.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      It’s so interesting to follow the trajectory of a life, Jay, particularly of a public figure with such an abundant trail of writings, stances & pronouncements. I’m still having a hard time squaring him up, but hell, that’s true of every life to varying degrees—we just don’t have access to most of them as we do to such a prominent and prolific public figure.

      But it’s weird, though—there are good accountings of him “evolving” on the race issue but kind of grudging-half-assedly, it seems to me. He weeps for the murdered Birmingham girls but opposes the Civil Rights Act a year later? Opposes Brown v. Board on the tired old mantra of “state’s rights?” As Biden would say, “C’mon, man!”And instead of finally assenting to full voting rights for blacks, he does his own version of doubling down by proposing to deny the vote to ALL of what he considered uneducated-poor-unqualified, no matter their skin color—”See, I’m not a racist!”

      My suspicion is he knew for a long time his position was indefensible, tried to come around, but only managed it in fits and starts, because he never developed the intellectual humility (tough for a brilliant rich Yale guy, no doubt…) to come clean with “I was wrong, I was a dolt, I’ll do better.” There: said it for ya, Bill, not that hard!

      But yeah—if only we still had conservatives like him, William Safire and Charles Krauthammer to contend with these days instead of what has become the Chaos Movement, ’nuff said…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Intellectual humility, as you note, is vital to admitting wrong. I agree with you that he likely knew his position was indefensible, and that intellectual humility was nowhere to be found in his DNA. Nevertheless, witnessing a conservative able to articulate a complex position, no matter how heinous, was striking to me. All that remain are the idealogues unable to string together any coherent thinking. I long to hear a cogent, intellectually-grounded argument for the strident move for illiberalism. I long to hear it/read it because I am deeply curious to understand it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I think the mistake is in any longer equating the Republican Party with conservatism, Jay, which is why you have yet to see a coherent iteration of its supposedly conservative ideology. It’s instead become radically populist, defined almost exclusively by grievance and cultural wedge issues rather than governing policy. The entire policy class of the Reagan-Buckley-Bush-Cheney era has been beaten to a pulp by Trump/MAGA and is therefore partyless, adrift at sea. So we currently have only one coherent party, which we see in the Dems having to rescue Mike Johnson’s speakership from the attempted coup by his own radically-radical crazy wing. Hard to figure how Buckley would have been viewing all this, but I doubt we would have caught him hosting Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz for Happy Hour on his yacht…

  • Loren  says:

    I’m afraid that I lost interest in both of these gentlemen long ago, particularly Buckley, but I really enjoyed reading your essay, Andrew. I think it helped me to better understand my early distaste for Buckley.

    Unfortunately, as someone has already noted, in retrospect, Buckley seems vastly superior to those championing the Republican Party today.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Glad to clarify your aversion to Buckley, Loren, thanks! I’m curious about your losing interest in Baldwin long ago, though. Was it a particular “not interested anymore” for whatever reason, or more of a drifting away of the “OK, I get it, and now it’s on to someone else…” variety? Coming back to him in fits and starts the past couple years, he seems more the trailblazer than ever, very much anticipating today’s prominent black voices and wearing pretty well this half century after my first exposure to him.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Wonderful post my friend, as well as reader comments! The entire construct of “intelligence” is such a slippery slope! Some basic common sense and a bit of first-hand life experience make it so clear there are many different ways to be smart or intelligent. For years researchers in the late 20th century at Harvard led by Howard Gardner tried to develop a theory of “multiple intelligences” (he began postulating 7, then 8, a quick net search indicates it’s now up to 9). The key takeaway is some essential attributes to thriving in this complex world of ours go far beyond traditional notions of IQ and scholastic talents. Gardner identified both interpersonal and intrapersonal “intelligences”. My favorite recently added 9th “intelligence” is Existential Intelligence! “Existential intelligence refers to deep sensitivity and people’s ability to handle deep questions such as the meaning of existence, it’s one of the most complex of the nine types of intelligence listed in Gardner’s research. People with existential intelligence are not only comfortable talking about these serious questions but also strive to find the answer.”

    Perhaps the most successful version of this core insight supporting the critical role of empathy, compassion and such is Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, of course, he has developed TED talks, Management courses, and the like where one can learn the 12 “foundational and relational skills of Emotional Intelligence”.

    A long-winded reaction to William F. Buckley, but he sure is a poster child for the tragic limitations of traditional scholastic notions of intellect being the last word on intelligence! My closing comment here is just to underline that W.F. Buckley and his wife must have done several things right to produce a son as seemingly well-rounded, insightful, and delightfully funny as Christopher! I’ve read or listened to 5 or 6 of his books and find him totally delightful.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for bringing Daniel Goleman into the discussion, Kevin—he deserves to be here! I think we probably see the limitations of “scholastic intelligence” most acutely in the classic cliche of the math-computer nerd still living in his parents’ basement at 35 years old, incapable of navigating the heave & ho of life above ground and beyond his own mind. That certainly wasn’t Buckley, but he seems to have had his own version of that in not being able to shake ancient class and race prejudices. And it’s not like he lived in any “before” times when these issues hadn’t been addressed exhaustively in academic, cultural and political discourse.

      As for “existential intelligence,” whoa—a new one on me! Sounds sensible enough, though I am lingering on the word “answer” appearing in that formulation. Is Mr. Gardner suggesting there might be one??? :-)

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    The good Professor Gardner is not promulgating additional intelligences, rather he’s encouraging an open minded approach to this tricky construct after taking lots of heat from the more traditional cognitive theorists. A quick Google search suggests “existential intelligence” is attributed to the Prague International British school. In looking back the PBIS school they don’t elaborate on “… striving to find the answer”!! ( perhaps the word “the” is a potential land mine here!!)

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