Won't You Come Home, Bill Buckley?


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February 29, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr., writer, editor, founder of National Review, TV host, public intellectual, one-time mayoral candidate, wealthy dude, and baptized Catholic has gone to meet his Maker at the age of 82. The tributes are pouring in from friends, foes, and posers far and wide. Neoconservatives are weeping as they prepare lengthy encomia. Even writers I admire are eulogizing him.

I must say I'm quite ambivalent. Unlike self-identified conservatives of an earlier generation, I can say that Bill Buckley has had no direct influence whatsoever on my political thought. Yes, he made quite a splash in the 1950s beginning with God and Man at Yale, but that was 20 years before I was born. By the time I first picked up a copy of National Review, probably some time around 1996, the magazine was by all accounts barely a shadow of its former urbane self. These days, it's so awful it's embarrassing, at least if its online incarnation is any indication.

Buckley was, of course, a prolific writer, not just in his own magazine but also in books of collected notes and essays and in syndication. His style was what might charitably be called loquacious, although turgid and pedantic were the two adjectives that came most readily to mind whenever I tried to read one of his columns. His prose sometimes made me think of Hemingway's quip about another writer: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" (He -- Buckley, not Hemingway -- also wrote spy novels. I never read one, but my mom did once and I recall her saying it was really bad.)

Not that the man wasn't possessed of a great wit -- he certainly was. But I'm wondering how much of his many writings or which of his ideas will really be remembered now he's gone. Apart from establishing a magazine and appointing himself the pope of doctrinaire conservatism, did he really contribute anything insightful, original, or constructive to the philosophical and cultural patrimony of the American Right?

Your mileage may vary. Actually, your gas tank may be bone dry. I've said Buckley had no direct influence on my intellectual development, but he's had an enormous indirect influence by representing everything to me that was and is wrong with modern conservatism: an insincere commitment to first principles and hostility toward anyone who adheres to same; a childish and hypocritical yay-for-us, boo-for-them mentality; an eager and pathetic desire to be liked by those in power; and -- worst of all -- an unwavering addiction to war, war, war, and still more war.

It's this last, especially, that is his most grievous legacy. But in some way I do owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Buckley. Many of the fine writers and thinkers he purged from his magazine and from "polite" conservatism turned out to be a virtual reading list for my young mind, everyone from Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Russell Kirk to Joseph Sobran and Will Grigg (via the banished John Birch Society and its flagship magazine, The New American). The rule became, "If Buckley excommunicated him, he must be all right!"

Two other things. First, in re-reading his 1955 mission statement for National Review -- the famous one where he's standing athwart history, the literary equivalent of Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead -- I found a remarkable example of the beginning foretelling the end. Here is 29-year-old Bill Buckley writing of what ultimately became his own baleful influence: "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." (Indeed, though I would never charge him with ignorance, I've read numerous anecdotes that confirm Mr. Buckley ate quite heartily his entire life.)

Second, if you can tell something about a man from those who mourn him, then what is one to make of this profound panegyric?

THE PRESIDENT: No question, he was a -- one of the great political thinkers. He influenced a lot of people, including me. And he was -- I can remember those debates they had on TV, and he was so articulate and he captured the imagination of a lot of folks because he was -- he had a great way of defining the issues.

The eloquent, erudite Bill Buckley: memorialized by a presidential partisan unable to even complete a sentence in Buckley's beloved English language!

But nil nisi bonum and all that. Just about everyone who knew Bill Buckley -- even some of those he pushed from the ramparts of respectable conservatism -- uniformly speaks of a charming, generous, and gracious man. We can only wish that that gracious spirit would have been more manifest to those on the Right with whom he differed as well as to those he never personally knew, including the many soldiers and foreigners killed in pursuit of the empire he regrettably did so much to cheerlead into existence. May his soul -- and theirs -- rest in peace.

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