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An American original: appreciating Bill Buckley
by George Shadroui
12 October 2003

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. - Lionel Trilling, 1949

Trilling, one of the great critics of the past century, penned these comments as part of his collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination. Not as well remembered are comments he made later in the same essay: “we cannot very well set about to contrive opponents who will do us the service of forcing us to become more intelligent, who will require us to keep our ideas from becoming stale, habitual, and inert.”

Trilling’s appeal for constructive intellectual engagement from the conservative side was answered emphatically by William F. Buckley Jr., who burst upon the political scene in the early 1950s with the publication of God and Man at Yale. Buckley not only challenged the liberal establishment, he put it on its heels, and did it with a smile and a jauntiness that befuddled adversaries for half a century.

As the author of best-selling spy thrillers, a weekly political column, regular essays, and hundreds of speeches, as founder and editor of one of the nation’s most important political publications, National Review, and host of a public television talk show, Firing Line, that ran 33 years, Buckley was, in his heyday, George Will, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Kristol all rolled into one. He launched the modern conservative movement and dared to articulate the idea that co-existence with totalitarianism was not a position freedom-loving people could accept uncritically. Buckley’s “fusionism” melded anti-communists, free marketers and traditionalists into a single conservative family, albeit not always a happy one.

Ronald Reagan and other leading conservatives turned to Buckley and NR routinely for policy guidance and intellectual talking points. For this reason, Buckley has been called one of the three most influential (non-academic) public intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century by Richard Posner, the scholar and jurist, who published a book on the subject a couple of years ago.(The other two were Rachel Carson and Ayn Rand, about whom more later.)

Whittaker Chambers observed that Buckley was born, not made. That is clearly true. There have been better conservative writers and scholars. More brilliant men have crossed swords with him on the debate platform. It could even be said that Buckley lacked the focus to produce truly original work. But he was, in the very nature of his bearing and being, an American original. Because he has essentially retired from NR and is no longer doing Firing Line or making public speeches, I will refer to his activities in the past tense, mindful, of course, that Buckley still writes and grants occasional interviews.

Engaging the debate

Born to a wealthy conservative family that entertained conservative luminaries at the dinner table, Buckley served in the military during World War II and later as editor of the Yale Daily News, arguably the only conservative editor the publication ever had. He was supremely confident at a young age, as his first book, God and Man at Yale, clearly demonstrated. He wrote the book at the tender age of 25, but the themes it raised remain as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.

Buckley was dismayed by a Yale faculty that showed little respect for the free enterprise system, the surplus of which helped keep the doors of that university open. Likewise, he detected an active hostility toward religion and a prevailing sympathy for socialist cant of the sort that made intellectuals like Buckley and Willimore Kendall unwelcome intruders on their own campus. (Similar themes were raised years later by Allan Bloom in his book, The Closing of the American Mind.)

By the mid 1950s, Buckley and Willie Schlamm had decided that the country badly needed a conservative journal of opinion, one that cast issues in a relevant way and stood up to the prevailing liberal culture. In launching the magazine NR, Buckley gathered around him an interesting mix of free marketers, classicists and anti-communists. James Burnham, Max Eastman, John Chamberlain, Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer and Kendall all played a role in getting the magazine on its feet.

But it was Buckley who kept the ship on course and afloat, amid competing egos and philosophical and temperamental differences. The magazine was greeted with a combination of scorn, from the left, and excitement or wariness from the right. Buckley anticipated this response in the Publisher’s Statement, in which he wrote: “Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.”

Buckley is clearly distancing himself not only from the left here, but from a Republican/right establishment that had, in his words, “made their peace with the New Deal.” (Peter Viereck and Walter Lippmann come to mind.) But with the zeal of young man on a mission, Buckley embraced the challenge. NR, he suggested, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

For all his self proclaimed radicalism, Buckley insisted on steering NR toward a responsible and defensible position. He distanced the magazine from Randites, conspiracy-minded John Birchers, and anti-semites whose biases were clear. He appealed not to a new vision, but an old document – the U.S. Constitution, which defined the proper relationship between the state and the individual.

For all the talent the NR project brought to bear, it was Buckley who emerged as the star of the enterprise. It was not only his youth and energy that made him a sensation, but an insouciance that gave him the confidence to tackle the great names of liberalism head on: people like Dwight MacDonald, Murray Kempton, Archibald MacLeish, Jimmy Wechsler, Arthur Schlesinger and Norman Mailer.

Despite the many demands on him as editor, fund raiser, defender and spokesman, Buckley managed to produce two more books in the 1950s. In 1954, he and L. Brent Bozell published McCarthy and His Enemies, their attempt to explain why some conservatives were animated by the anti-communist cause the Senator from Wisconsin championed. Buckley has entertained some second thoughts on the matter, but he has never conceded that McCarthy was near the menace the liberal establishment has claimed. McCarthy’s greatest offense, Buckley has suggested, was to surrender the moral high ground to his opponents, particularly those apologists who even now cannot bring themselves to recognize the disaster that was the socialist experiment.

Buckley’s next book, Up From Liberalism (1959), remains a classic in the conservative genre and is arguably his most famous and important work. In it, Buckley deconstructed liberalism and the assumptions that underlie it. The centralized state, he argued, posed a threat to freedom as we know it. One cannot sever religious, economic and political freedom. They are a tripod upon which our rights as citizens depend. One goes at the risk of the others. For this reason, Buckley was willing to tolerate (though not excuse) even capitalist excess as an improvement over the left/liberal alternative, the Leviathan state. Yet, he not only challenged liberalism, he was precise in defining what he meant when he called someone a liberal:

They are men and women who tend to believe that the human being is perfectible and social progress predictable, and that the instrument for effecting the two is reason; that truths are transistory and empirically determined; that equality is desirable and attainable through the action of state power; that social and individual differences, if they are not rational, are objectionable, and should be scientifically eliminated; that all people and societies strive to organize themselves upon a rationalist and scientific paradigm.

Here we have in a few sentences a call to resist centralized power, communism and secular humanism of the sort that seeks to rob us of the transcendental dimension in human affairs. It is also illustrative of how Buckley was able to bring the three branches of conservatism under one roof. There is something for everyone who would seek to protect individualism in the face of creeping statism.

Up from Liberalism turned the heads of many people, but it was the last book of extended argument Buckley wrote. Four Reforms tackles specific issues and conservative solutions for resolving them, and The Unmaking of a Mayor, which may be his best book, walks us through his campaign for mayor in New York City and the pressing urban issues of the 1960s. But the first is attenuated and the second reportorial and autobiographical. Thus, Buckley’s philosophy, as it evolved over several decades, must be gleaned from a half dozen collections of essays and columns, his speeches, now collected in Let Us Talk of Many Things, and his comments on Firing Line.

This failure or reluctance to write “a big book” prompted the most common criticism aimed in his direction: that, with all his gifts, he never took the trouble to dig deeply in a theoretical or historical way. It is a rather strange charge, though I suppose there is some truth to it; one might as well criticize Norman Mailer for not hosting a weekly political talk show of substance, or John Kenneth Galbraith for not writing a weekly column that presented his views in digestible nuggets.

Garry Wills, once an NR staffer, was partially right when he observed of Buckley that his own personality became his most compelling subject. What Wills missed, in his determination to break ranks with Buckley, was how expertly Buckley has promoted the ideas he celebrated even as he celebrated his own life. Consequently, though much of his work is cast in autobiographical form -- sailing books, appreciations, memoirs, various collections of writings – they are instructive in two ways. First, Buckley’s wide interest underscored rather dramatically that he was hardly the dogmatist early critics claimed. Sure, he assailed political opponents with wit and ferocity, but he was also under attack continuously. Second, it was always Buckley’s firm conviction that there were more important things in life than politics or power: faith, friendship, family, an appreciation for the gifts each of us receive. His conservatism was not dour, but celebratory.

Buckley accepted early on that he was not a philosopher, but a debater and counter puncher. He was not going to expend years, the way Kirk or Hayek did, explicating in a single volume the conservative position or deconstructing socialism in broad, deep strokes. Rather, he would – quick study that he was – glean the best from conservative thinkers and scholars, and utilize his gifts to give their ideas currency and relevance in broader American political culture. In a Washington Post profile upon his 60th birthday, Buckley addressed this point unapologetically, when he observed that Chesterton lightened Toryism, and arguments that had never been heard before got a hearing.

The underlying faith

Beyond his public conservative stance, Buckley is also known for his deep, abiding faith. He has been a practicing Catholic all of his life. Buckley’s religious convictions are key to understanding him. Critics who approach him as a strictly political personality soon find themselves punching at clouds. The ideologue turns out to be pragmatic; the dogmatist, a humorist; the elitist, the kindest of men; the aristocrat, when all is said and done, a man of democratic sensibilities; the happy, contented man actually someone carrying deep sorrows only rarely shared on the public stage. (He resembles, in several of these paradoxes, his friend and hero Ronald Reagan.)

Nearer My God is the only book Buckley wrote solely on the issue of religion and faith. (He interviewed Malcolm Muggeridge on Firing Line numerous times on such issues, some of the most riveting intellectual discussion ever aired). In Nearer My God, he does not expound at length himself, but turns to others he respects to help animate discussions of faith and dogma with which many of us wrestle. Buckley enjoyed these discussions, but they were not really central to his own faith. He once wrote that everything he needed to know about religion was contained in the Sermon on the Mount. In short, for all his apparent glamour and wit, Buckley remains a humble man trying to do the work of his Lord.

This point is important to explore because so many critics, including some on the right, have really never gotten him. I share a couple of anecdotes that might help illustrate the contradictions between caricature and reality. Some years ago, I was browsing through a local used bookstore in a small town in North Carolina, and a gray-haired woman was working there. I asked her if she had any books by William F. Buckley, Jr. She shot me a sharp glance, raised an eyebrow and asked how a young man like me could possibly be interested in reading a snob like Buckley. Now, one is not often accosted when shopping for books, but I could not resist engaging the discussion. She proceeded to unleash the usual clichés about him – that he brandished big words because he was an elitist who talked down to people, that he had a haughty, unfriendly air about him, that he disrespected his guests, etc. No amount of protestation on my part could budge her – she was firm. I chalked it up to her being a liberal who disliked Buckley for debunking her most cherished assumptions and left it at that.

My own encounter with him, albeit it short, showed something different. I was a reporter in Norfolk, Virginia in the mid 1980s and Buckley was giving a lecture in town. Having recently written for National Review, I hoped to introduce myself to him. As he spoke I was surprised at how shy he appeared to be on stage. He hardly resembled the great debater of Firing Line fame. As audience members asked questions, Buckley backed into the stage curtains, as if to disappear into the folds of the cloth.

It occurred to me then that he might not welcome my encroachment. Even so, I made my way to the stage. He was surrounded by people. When I finally reached him and introduced myself, he managed a few polite comments, mentioned some prominent Virginia conservatives he knew, and that was that. The entire exchange lasted a minute or two. He was clearly a man exhausted by a hectic schedule and endless demands on his time. And yet, in the years since, I have written him more than a dozen times, and each time, even when I was arguing a contrary position, he has always managed to return a note, sometimes thoughtful and penetrating. No other public person I have encountered, save Wendell Berry, has shown such polite respect to a total stranger.

I think this decency is rooted in Buckley’s religious sensibilities. He responds to virtually everyone because he has been given great gifts that are to be shared – to whom much is given, much is expected. He has a brilliant mind, but he is open to the views of others because he sees the face of God in each person he engages, whether on the debate platform, or in a letter. He avoids dogma and theory because they are false idols, man-made constructs that minimize the importance of the individual soul and reduce history to a process, not a drama. The free market transaction must be protected, in Buckley’s eyes, not only because it is efficient and productive, but because surrendering economic power may well serve as a prelude to ripping crucifixes off our walls. That was the lesson of fascism and communism, at least.

John Judis, in his biography of Buckley, Patron Saint of Conservatives, on a few occasions managed to peel the public persona from the inner man. He quotes Buckley’s wife on the death of Buckley’s father, William F. Buckley Sr. She observed that not a day goes by that her husband does not mourn the loss of his father. This is hardly the jocular WFB distributed for public consumption. Some might argue that Buckley avoids introspection so as to step away from the burdens of mortality. And yet his tributes to people like his mother, Allard Lowenstein, Grace Kelly and many others are beautiful not only as pieces of writing, but as lessons in humility and grace in the face of devastating loss. He hardly comes off as an elitist obsessed with wealth or privilege.

Buckley’s faith led to several controversies and separations. Max Eastman resigned from NR because he disagreed with its religious sympathies. Ayn Rand once told Buckley he was too intelligent to believe in God. Buckley argued nevertheless that a conservative should not countenance Ms. Rand’s attempts to theologize her ideas about capitalism and individualism. When Ms. Rand mistook herself for God, he quipped, the gulf between her and conservatives was too broad to breach. It was Reid Buckley, his younger brother, who encapsulated the spirit that guides Buckley and the family as a whole:

We learned from our parents to prefer the good man to the brilliant man. It is a sacred humanity in people we respect. Our compassion is earned in the quality of the human condition. People are surprised to realize that we, princelings of Dame Fortune, as they feel us to be, tread the same hard interior landscape. And it may be this that comes through, that fascinates, because we do not presume, `Come, let us lead you,' but, instead, petition, `Come, our philosophy is your way, the human way, and it is you who will and must lead yourselves…’

The inimitable style

Clearly, what distinguished Buckley from other conservatives was not his political philosophy or even his religious faith, which many of us share, but a discursive style that sets him apart. His unique mannerisms, distinctive accent, ready wit, precise language and boundless humor made him a television star. He enjoyed self parody, and often published comments from correspondents who noted his lazy posture, his darting tongue, and his recourse to words they did not know. He did not take himself all that seriously, as indicated by one headline from an article that appeared in the New York Times: “I am Lapidary but Not Eristic When I Use Big Words.”

Young conservatives grew up watching him, admiring him, and wanting to emulate him, an impossible aspiration, of course, because Buckley was and remains suigeneris. During his run for Mayor of New York City in 1965, the story goes, editors at the liberal New York Times kept sending out different reporters to cover his campaign because each time one of them returned, they were singing Buckley’s praises and pondering voting for him. Garry Wills may not have meant it as a compliment, but in his sometimes petty book, Confessions of a Conservative, he observed Buckley’s ability to steer National Review staff through boisterous and often bitter disagreements, using humor and charm to patch over differences.

His witticisms were so widespread that they were compiled in a book, Quotations from Chairman Bill, a parody perhaps of The Sayings of Chairman Mao. Buckley was a mere 45 years old when the book was published. A few warrant repeating, though not all of them are found in Quotations. He said he would rather be governed by the first 300 names in the Boston phonebook than by the Harvard faculty. Robert F. Kennedy avoided Firing Line, he observed, for the same reason that baloney rejects the grinder. What would he do if he won the mayoral election in New York City: demand a recount. What would be the first thing he would do after being elected? Hang a net outside the window of the editor of the New York Times.

But his humor was sophisticated and it usually connected to ideas. To compare him with other political talk show hosts who followed Firing Line calls to mind Henry Adams’ comment that comparing President Grant to his predecessors was an argument against evolution. If Jack Kennedy was the first and greatest television president, Bill Buckley must be considered the greatest television pundit. He had a special gift for making intellectual discussion exciting because he deconstructed arguments on the run. He was a fluid thinker and debater, a man so quick on his feet that it dazzled all but the most facile of his opponents. He gave liberals and leftists a forum and all the time they needed to explain their ideas. There was only one catch. They all had to debate him, and when Buckley turned round on them, to paraphrase his own line about Muggeridge, they found themselves outnumbered.

Buckley entertained and educated simultaneously, week after week, for more than 30 years, and brought to us friend and foe alike: people like Mortimer Adler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Norman Mailer, Muhammad Ali, Jack Keroac, Edward Teller, Walker Percy, James Dickey, Germaine Greer, Noam Chomsky, not to mention half the press corps, Nixon, Reagan, Carter, and dozens of political and Congressional leaders.

Though he would be the first to admit he lacked Chesterton’s original genius, Buckley was to post-war America what Chesterton had been during the first half of 20th century England, an intellectual and political provocateur who challenged the assumptions of liberal and secular dogma with infectious gusto, winning grudging respect even from those who disagreed, nay detested, his political positions. It was so important to him to conduct debate in a civil way that he even apologized for his most notable act of public incivility, his counter-attack on Gore Vidal during a national broadcast at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. A full accounting of that now legendary confrontation is recorded in one of his collections of columns and essays, the Governor Listeth.

That is not to suggest the man was perfect, or that those around him did not begin to find his bright light a bit of a glare. Whittaker Chambers, though he remained friendly, left NR for political reasons. Buckley deeply regretted the falling out he had with Garry Wills, whose talents Buckley discovered and celebrated. Joe Sobran was driven from National Review because of his insensitivity to Israel and the Jewish community, a parting that was bitter and much discussed. Willie Schlamm broke with Buckley, temporarily, angry that his role in founding National Review did not bring him due authority and respect. The fringe right resents him for lacking dogmatism, for excommunicating them from the conservative movement, for being a little too friendly with the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith. And so it goes in the world of competing agendas and rough political tumble.

An historical assessment

John Judis, though a lukewarm reviewer of Buckley’s life, conceded that one cannot understand American politics without understanding the conservative movement which Buckley animated. George Will observed that without Buckley, there would have been no National Review, and without NR, no conservative movement to propel Reagan to the presidency. One can speculate, then, whether the Soviet Union would still be around, if we accept, as some of us do, that Reagan was instrumental in helping to ignite the implosion of communism.

Culturally, Buckley also had an impact. During the mid 1960s and through the 1970s, he was among the most imitated of our public personalities. He made political talk a weekly routine but raised it to an art form. Radio and television hosts since him have come and gone, but few could touch his intellect or his wit. Even today, Rush Limbaugh imitates him routinely on air, without attribution, though there is no need for we all know the Buckley cadence. Sean Hannity has paid tribute to Buckley for making conservatism an acceptable part of the public discourse. NR faces a little competition these days, but it remains the most prominent of the conservative journals.

On a more personal level, Buckley impacted a great many of us who care deeply about culture, politics and debate in our nation. Disagree or not, after spending time in Buckley’s company – whether reading his books, watching Firing Line, or hearing him lecture – you felt elevated somehow. You chose your words a little more thoughtfully, tried to annunciate arguments more clearly, challenged your own assumptions more critically. He forced all of us to think beyond our cauldron of prejudices. In the process, he raised, intellectually speaking, several generations of conservatives. At the risk of sounding a tad elegiac, for Buckley is very much alive and writing, I turn to a tribute that James Russell Lowell wrote in honor of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Was never eye did see that face,
Was never ear did hear that tongue,
Was never mind did mind his grace,
That ever thought the travail long;
But eyes and hears and every thought,

Were with his sweet perfections caught.”

George Shadroui is a writer who has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com

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