Friday, February 29, 2008

William F. Buckley Is Not Dead

Colbert discusses William F. Buckley

Why Did William F. Buckley Jr. Talk Like That?
Q&A on William F. Buckley
Q: What is the most surprising discovery you’ve made while working on this biography of William F. Buckley Jr.? —Joyce Huyett Turner

A: There were two. First, he would rather talk about almost anything other than politics — literature, music, sailing, music. He once told me, “I only talk about politics when someone pays me to do it.” Second, I never heard him make a personally disparaging remark about anyone, even adversaries like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Gore Vidal. He might describe something they did or the style in which they did it, but never in an insulting or even critical way. He had a large sense of the human comedy.

Sesquipedalian Spark of Right

The Buckley effect

Mr Buckley famously said that the purpose of the National Review was to stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop’”. But in fact he did more than just stand athwart. He helped to drive the crazies out of the movement. He persuaded a disparate band of enthusiasts—free-marketers and social conservatives, anti-communists and American traditionalists—to band together against the liberal-collectivist foe. And he attracted a brilliant group of intellectuals to the conservative cause, including, for a while, such unlikely people as Garry Wills and Joan Didion, both (now) liberal writers.

What made Mr Buckley such a weather-changer? Money helped: his father was a multimillionaire and the young Buckley tapped both his personal wealth and his family's connections to finance his new magazine. But the young man also brought a rare collection of qualities to his self-appointed task.

The first was an appetite for bomb throwing. Just as radical artists like nothing better than baiting the bourgeoisie, Mr Buckley was at his happiest baiting the liberal establishment. His first book, “God and Man at Yale”, which he published shortly after graduating, took aim not just at his alma mater but at the academic elite in general.

The book turned him into a national sensation, with students queuing around the block to buy it and grandees such as McGeorge Bundy denouncing its author as a “twisted and ignorant young man”. It also linked two of the themes that were to drive forward the rise of the conservative movement—opposition to Keynesian economics (the man part of the book's title) and dislike of secular intellectuals (the God part).

Mr Buckley's second quality was his patrician style. He was a leading adornment of the establishment he liked to excoriate. He sailed his own boat and holidayed in St Tropez and St Moritz. He liked to hang out with such liberal luminaries as J.K. Galbraith (in the local book store in Gstaad, where they both went skiing, they would battle to get their books the best spot in the window). His wife, Patricia, was one of New York's leading socialites. Mr Buckley managed to be every liberal's favourite conservative as well as every conservative's favourite conservative.

Mr Buckley put both qualities on display in his television appearances. As the host of “Firing Line” from 1966 to 1999 he pioneered a type of televised political mud-wrestling that has since become tedious but was once regarded as ground-breaking. His style was all his own—he spoke in languid sentences, adorned with erudite allusions and polysyllabic flourishes, in an accent that had a touch of English-aristo. But he was not above raw populism. He was infamous for using the word “queer” on television (during a debate with Gore Vidal).

This belies the third thing that made him important—an inner core of seriousness. Mr Buckley was in it for more than the champagne. He was a committed Catholic, as were many of those around him at the Review. He felt that modern liberalism was corroding the foundation of Western civilisation, no less. For him, first things always came first.

Remembering the Mentor
Buckley’s greatest talent was friendship. The historian George Nash once postulated that he wrote more personal letters than any other American, and that is entirely believable. He showered affection on his friends, and he had an endless stream of them, old and young. He took me sailing, invited me to concerts and included me at dinners with the great and the good.

He asked my opinion about things, as he did with all his young associates, and he worked hard on polishing my writing. My short editorials would come back covered with his red ink, and if I’d written one especially badly there might be an exasperated comment, “Come on, David!”

His second great talent was leadership. As a young man, he had corralled the famously disputatious band of elders who made up the editorial board of National Review. He changed the personality of modern conservatism, created a national movement and expelled the crackpots from it.

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