Buckley vs. Baldwin: The Great(est) Debaters

Buckley vs. Baldwin: The Great(est) Debaters

By Sanjena Sathian

SourceCorbis and Getty


Because you don’t need to rewatch House of Cards when the real thing is so damn good.

By Sanjena Sathian

Public debates almost always completely and totally suck.

But one exception to that unfortunate rule comes from the archives of 1965 — a debate about this question: “Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” The debaters were William F. Buckley, editor of the National Review and the very grandfather of modern conservatism, and James Baldwin, among  the 20th century’s most important playwrights, essayists and novelists — and who just happened to be gay and Black. It went down in the U.K. at the University of Cambridge. There’s Baldwin, at 41 looking like a sprightlier younger man, fresh from having written his sexually liberal and racially groundbreaking Another Country, recently heroed on the cover of Time and newly friends with Martin Luther King Jr.

Here’s one unforgettable moment in Baldwin’s statement — it’s the kind of rare moment that puts a face on abstract ideas of the what-is-that-whole-affirmative-action-thing variety:

“This is not an overstatement. I picked the cotton and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip. For nothing. For nothing. The southern oligarchy which until today has so much power in Washington … was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free, the home of the brave.”


Sure, Baldwin — who received a rare (perhaps first) standing ovation in stiff, white, straight British company — in retrospect, is easy to paint as the hero (and the winner, in a landslide). But there’s much to be learned from the losing team: namely, how to effectively reframe an issue of pathos into that of a counterfactual. Rendering experience irrelevant? That’s a powerful skill.

And Buckley, well, he had balls, ones he seems to flaunt from the time he declares in that aristocratically lazy mid-Atlantic accent: “Mr. Baldwin, I am going to speak to you tonight without any of the surrounding protections that come by virtue of the fact that you are a Negro.” You have to give the guy a tip of the hat for his daring: “The trouble in Mississippi is that there are too many white people voting, not too few Black people voting,” he says in answer to a question in the crowd.

But like all good (read: often inherently silly) public debates, there’s little wrap-up at the end of this one. So, perhaps we should end at the end of one of Baldwin’s other pieces: “Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.”