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William F. Buckley and Marvin Levich, 1964, photo
A Legendary Debate
By Elizabeth Ussher Groff
This past February, after the death of celebrated conservative William F. Buckley, I found myself reminiscing about Firing Line, the television program where Buckley prevailed with facial theatrics, precious views, and strong opinions. Using wicked wit and verbal sparring, he often outmatched his guests.
Then I remembered hearing that in the 1960s Marvin Levich, Reed professor emeritus of philosophy and humanities and former provost, had “creamed” Buckley in a debate held in Portland. Indeed, a day after the debate, held December 4, 1964, an article in the Oregonian described Buckley and Levich as “well matched in their intellectual acumen and probing delivery.” This, I thought, was in keeping with Levich’s reputation for using infallible logic and an acerbic style to spar with students and fellow faculty members.
One of the reasons the debate remains legendary in the Reed community—and its significance still resonates on campus—has to do with the political context in which it took place. Freedom to organize, protest, and host talks without fear of surveillance or reprisal emerged at Reed in stark contrast to the situation in the 1950s, when the college, along with campuses across the country, had been gripped in the clutches of McCarthyism. At the time of the debate, memories still lingered of an era when fear and repression had wreaked havoc, particularly for three Reed professors who had been summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged ties to the Communist Party.
In June 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. In November, Lyndon Johnson mightily defeated the conservative standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater. That summer, a small contingent of Reed students went to Mississippi to register black voters and returned to campus fired up. The Quest did its part to stir the fires of political discourse by peppering its fall issues with articles about campus activism. A chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded on campus, and the W.E.B. DuBois Club, branded by the FBI as a “communist youth front organization,” sponsored a talk at Reed in October by Henry Winston, celebrated by the Quest’s October 12 issue as a “Negro Communist spokesman.”
In September of that year, an announcement appeared in the Quest that reflects the particularly inspired political passion on campus in 1964: “The Public Affairs Board will present one of the most exciting evenings in the history of Reed College when Professor Marvin Levich of the Reed philosophy department debates the great white knight of Conservatism, Mr. William F. Buckley Jr., Editor and Publisher of the National Review.”
The resolution for debate—that “internal security legislation is incompatible with the nature of a free society,” according to a December 1964 Quest article—spoke to the political angst that lingered in the wake of the threats to freedom of speech and association that Reed faculty members had endured a decade earlier.
Anticipated high interest in the debate prompted organizers to choose the spacious Cleveland High School auditorium for its location. The late Dick Jones of Reed’s history department moderated, and for 90 minutes Levich and Buckley sparred before an overflow crowd of 1,200. Levich argued that internal security legislation undermined the future of a free society, while Buckley defended such legislation as necessary to protect freedoms.
Today, many accounts of the debate emanate from its local oral history. In a recent conversation, 93-year-old Herb Gladstone, retired professor of music and the college’s oldest living professor emeritus, noted, “I missed the debate, but I heard that Levich took him apart.”
Stefan Kapsch, professor emeritus of political science and former director of Reed’s Public Policy Workshop, concludes, “Buckley was accustomed to dealing with people as if they were inferior. He wasn’t used to being matched with someone who was just as quick witted and in command of the language.”
As Levich himself recalls, “Buckley didn’t prevail on this occasion.” Levich says he attacked Buckley’s credentials as a conservative, relentlessly pointing out inconsistencies between Buckley’s argument and the conservative principles he espoused.
“He returned over and over to my point that he was not arguing as a genuine conservative,” says Levich, “but he was not able to effectively defend himself.”
Levich left quite an impression on Buckley. In a letter he wrote to Buckley several months after the debate, Levich began, ‘You may not remember me.’ Buckley wrote back, ‘Oh, I DO remember you.’”
Elizabeth Ussher Groff is a freelance writer and community activist. She is married to David Groff, who taught at Reed from 1976 to 1987 and was dean of students for three years.
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