Considered by itself, William F. Buckley Jr. having offered the commencement address to the UC Riverside Class of 1970 might lead one to infer this was a time of greater kumbaya among conservatives and liberals. One would be dissuaded by a retelling of the day’s events, including the on-stage introduction of a pig—the pig not being Buckley.
There is no name more associated with modern conservatism than that of Buckley, the late pundit and author. Fifty years ago, Buckley—he of the Mid-Atlantic English accent, raconteur swagger, multisyllabic vocabulary, and lacerating wit—was a commencement speaker at UC Riverside. It was in the midst of the campus protest movement, and his talk was sandwiched between UCR’s two largest-ever student demonstrations—one of which was directed at Buckley’s good friend, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Announcing Buckley’s appearance to speak at the June 17 commencement inspired the student newspaper The Highlander to lead an article in its April 21, 1970 edition with, “What? You’re kidding! Oh, you are. Aren’t you?”
“I want to hear him,” then-junior Sue Miller opined to The Highlander staff. “He has the most marvelous vocabulary I’ve ever heard.”
“Super-conservative,” chimed in another student, with her friend adding: “Like Chancellor Hinderaker.”
Buckley wouldn’t have blinked at the students’ reticence. The man who turned conservative pontification into performance art was a hired gun on the lecture circuit. His public talks helped keep his magazine, The National Review, afloat.
But The Highlander’s reception led to second thoughts from Ivan Hinderaker, UCR’s chancellor from 1964 to 1979. Hinderaker thought of phoning Buckley to ask if he wanted to reconsider, then decided to do so would be to admit UCR “no longer had the maturity of a university.
Much of the retelling of the day’s events comes from Buckley; some from the biography “William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives.”
The morning of commencement, 500 student newspapers were confiscated because of a picture deemed obscene, reproduced from another UC student newspaper. “Free love, free smut,” Buckley coined it.
The national anthem was played at the start of commencement. Hinderaker spoke, then the president of the student body. To the side of the platform on which resided the lectern and speakers, the “5 to 10 percent” of “troublemakers”—Buckley’s words—sat in waiting.
The student body president announced some students had a presentation for Buckley. They approached with a large and “quivering” cardboard box. In a gesture that evokes the present political climate, inside was a small, live pig, to connote police brutality. One of the students offered Buckley a leash but—whoops!—he allowed it to slip through his fingers. The pig walked toward the podium and promptly peed next to the chancellor, who was commending one of the graduates.
Bob Stubenrauch, a 1970 UCR graduate, recalls the pig then scurried off the stage and into the audience.
"We actually caught live audio of the squeals of our little piglet as it was being chased up and down the rows of folding chairs by a very nervous little group of lower-level admin personnel," said Stubenrauch, who worked at campus radio station KUCR 50 years ago. "The whole affair lasted maybe 5 to 10 minutes."
As Buckley spoke, a demonstrator exploded a tear-gas canister, which fizzled off in an unintended direction. Over the commotion, the great conservative provocateur declared: “Reason may not save us, but the absence of reason will not save us.”
Soon enough, commencement was over, and—to Buckley’s surprise—the chancellor pronounced he was pleased. No one had been hurt and the speaker hadn’t been booed, the tear-gas canister seemingly having been assigned to the less impactful, non-verbal species of interruptions.
It was memorable for Buckley, enough that it became the subject of an installment in his nationally syndicated column, “On the Right.” Buckley relayed the pig incident in good humor, and also wrote of the bikini-clad woman getting her masters and the guy-grad in red undershorts and garters who gave Hinderaker a banana pie (not to the face, thankfully).
Buckley said his speech—he never referred to the campus by name in his column—represented the first time he’d encountered trouble offering a commencement address and added: “You get to wondering… whether, in the old phrase, you’re playing horse to other people’s Lady Godiva.”