I never met James L. Buckley, but he was familiar with my work and he did have an impact on my life. Buckley, who died August 18 at age 100, was William F. Buckley's brother and an unlikely Conservative senator from New York, who served from 1971 to 1977, occupying a seat once held by Bobby Kennedy.
During Buckley's term in office I was editing Observation Post, or OP, a radical student newspaper at the City College of New York. I often published in OP the surreal drawings of the late artist and filmmaker Robert Attanasio. Attanasio, who was brought up in the Catholic Church and later rejected its teachings, had strong feelings about the church's myriad hypocrisies, which he expressed in his art.
In 1974, the church had yet to be exposed as a haven for pedophilic clergy and was considered by many, including Buckley, to be untouchable—an institution off limits to criticism by anybody for any reason. One did not criticize those who spoke for God. It was also a time, one year into Richard Nixon's second term, that the despair and rage his presidency and his endless war in Vietnam engendered were giving rise to a punk sensibility whose mode of expression was outrage for the sake of outrage. OP was a font of this sensibility, and that's why I published an Attanasio cartoon that The New York Times would later describe as "a nun using a cross as a sexual object."
The cartoon infuriated Catholic organizations on campus and beyond. In a speech before the senate, Buckley characterized Attanasio's nun as "a vicious and incredibly offensive antireligious drawing" and called for a federal investigation of OP and the expulsion of the students responsible for publishing it. The media firestorm that ensued galvanized OP, giving it a newfound sense of purpose: defending the nun in the name of transgressive art.
But there would be no investigation and nobody would be expelled. The First Amendment and a Times editorial in support of the student press (despite "inexcusably irresponsible or offensive actions by undergraduate editors") got in the way of politicians who wanted to cut off all funding for campus newspapers at public colleges. OP, a bastion of free expression, would continue publishing for five more years. And thanks to James L. Buckley, I learned more about the Constitution and the power of the press than I learned in any class I took as an undergraduate.
May the senator rest in peace.
Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.
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