The Conservative and the MurdererBreaking News
tags: conservatism, books, William F. Buckley, true crime
Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free
by Sarah Weinman
In the fall of 1962, William F. Buckley Jr. befriended a convicted killer. Seven years earlier, Buckley had founded National Review. He and its editors—an idiosyncratic coterie of hypergraphic libertarians, ex-Communists, and Christian traditionalists—had succeeded in reinvesting the hoary, quietist, vaguely continental term “conservative” with American vim, vigor, and revolutionary flair. But Buckley, a few years shy of his run for mayor of New York City and the debut of his television program Firing Line, was not yet a household name. And National Review, its pages filled with stylish reactionary chatter well to the right of the Republican mainstream, remained a relatively parochial concern.
And so Buckley was bemused to discover—via a brief column, flagged by an NR underling, in the Ridgewood, New Jersey, Herald-News—that his little magazine had found a reader inside the Trenton State Prison death house: a 28-year-old autodidact by the name of Edgar “Eddie” Smith, sentenced to the electric chair in 1957 for the murder of a teenage girl named Victoria Ann Zielinski. Smith described himself as an “ardent Barry Goldwater fan” and mentioned that his source of NR issues—a Roman Catholic prison chaplain—had relocated to another facility. Buckley, ever curious and impishly attracted to the incongruous and odd, wrote a letter to Smith offering a “lifetime” subscription to NR.
The tragic and gripping saga that ensued is the subject of Sarah Weinman’s new book, Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free. As in her previous book, The Real Lolita, Weinman tells this lurid tale with all the narrative texture and tempo—and only some of the tawdriness—of a true-crime genre classic. Relying on original reporting, court documents, and thousands of pages of letters exchanged between Smith, Buckley, and an editor named Sophie Wilkins, Scoundrel is an agonizingly intimate depiction of an unlikely epistolary love triangle—the bloody consequences of which would haunt its besotted principals for decades to come.
In Weinman’s telling, Buckley’s peculiar dedication to Smith had little to do with his politics: Buckley was and remained a champion of police, prisons, and the death penalty. It was instead Buckley’s character—his credulity, loyalty, and self-regard—that allowed Smith to ensnare him. In this way, Scoundrel is a bit like Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer in reverse: with Smith in the position of the journalist (the “confidence man, preying on people’s vanity … and betraying them without remorse”) and Buckley in the position of the journalistic subject, who is made a fool.
With Buckley, however, the apparent contradiction is the point. If the Edgar Smith case suggests anything about Buckley’s brand of politics, it is precisely his comfort with self-serving paradox—with incoherence, mutability, and ironclad rules that apply everywhere except for where they don’t. “Conservatism,” as the composer Frank Wilhoit once put it, “consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” It was Edgar Smith’s extraordinary fortune to find himself warmly invited—by Buckley himself—into the former category.