Whether it is a blessing or a curse I am not sure, but my mind often flashes on photographs I’ve seen when something I hear triggers its mental image. When I heard on the radio that William F. Buckley, Jr. died last Wednesday, the photograph below instantly filled my mind’s eye.
Incorrectly labeled “October Forum / October 1970” on its back, the photograph depicts Buckley, seated in the center with his trademark clipboard, during his visit to Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on December 9th of that year. He was the final speaker in the series “Students and Politics: The Election of 1970” held during the fall semester. The Carolina Forum, represented on stage by its chairman Peter Brown, sponsored Buckley’s participation in the series. At the podium is Professor George V. Taylor.
The Alumni Review for January 1971 described the scene that evening. “There was more audience than room in Memorial Hall. The crowd of 1,800 spilled out the windows onto the lawn outside the auditorium.” In a campaign year when President Richard Nixon was continually taunted and jeered by, as Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop (a previous speaker in the series) had described them, “Kids [meaning] those obscenity-throwing radicals who show up at every rally.” The spillover UNC crowd, made up mostly students, was “friendly, interrupting the well-known conservative for applause and laughter at his occasional dry wit”—despite the Daily Tar Heel cartoonist B. Cumming’s call to witness “a good fight” sans dictionary.
Buckley’s 1970 trip to UNC was not his first. The Carolina Forum invited Buckley to speak on Monday, 10 December 1962 on the topic of “Freedom and the Welfare State”; instead he spoke about, as the Daily Tar Heel described it, “a relation of conservatism to present policies.” Buckley essentially read an article he wrote for the January 1963 issue of Playboy that was coincidently available for the first time that very day— unbeknownst to Buckley until someone asked him to autograph a copy after his speech.
Afterward, a month-long supervening furor arose that made the national press. By week’s end the Dialectical-Philanthropic Society censured Buckley “for use of vulgarity and poor taste.” The Carolina Forum threatened not to pay Buckley his $450 speaker fee, which was much larger than Forum speakers usually received, for deviating from his planned talk. Some critics saw more value in buying the equivalent number of copies of Playboy to distribute around campus. Buckley wrote a long letter to the Daily Tar Heel in which he noted that the 1,000 attendees who paid fifty cents paid less than the one dollar cover price of the magazine. He referred to the Di-Phi Society as the “Old Lace Society” and quipped, “Would you refuse to invite the January Playmate to Chapel Hill because she had already revealed her charms? Strike that. I forgot about your Dialectical-Philanthropic Society. No doubt it doesn’t permit Playmates at Chapel Hill.”