Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr. -- Rest in Peace

The death yesterday of William F. Buckley, Jr. was unwelcome news, indeed. It would be hard to overestimate the intellectual impact of his ideas on modern America, or to point to anyone else within the journalistic profession whose contributions have borne such significant fruit. It is no exaggeration to say that, without Buckley, the Reagan Presidency could have never happened.

In the years following World War II, we found that we had vanquished the threat of national socialism only to replace that threat with another, no less formidable threat in the form of Soviet communism. The narrative of communism -- its appeal to economic justice and its drumbeat of deterministic inevitability -- had won a lot of converts within American journalism, academia, and even within the government itself. As Soviet communism bore down on us from a strategic and military perspective, many of its fellow-traveling "progressive" ideals also infected America's public policy, dragging us inexorably toward socialism. Social security, laws to protect labor unions, minimum wage laws, and finally (since there is no logical stopping point for such thinking) welfare, housing, and millions of other policy directives all seemed to point to the inevitable arrival of the Nanny State.

Enter William Buckley, World War II vet, son of a wealthy oil man, educated in an English boarding school, and eventually at Yale University, where he ran head on into the liberalism which serves as the sieve through which all ideas in the academic world are strained . Where most of us might just try to grin and bear the liberal indoctrination for four years, Buckley's response was to grin and refuse to bear it, hitting back with his first book, God and Man at Yale , in 1951, a witty expose of the techniques and pervasiveness of liberal indoctrination within the hallowed halls of academia. Liberals reacted to the book with a heaping of shock and disgust, garnished with a soupcon of hysteria. E.g., the Saturday Review's reasoned, dispassionate reaction:

"The book is one which has the glow and appeal of a fiery cross on a hillside at night. There will undoubtedly be robed figures who gather to it, but the hoods will not be academic. They will cover the face."

(Nothing like a tolerant liberal, I always say.)

And ever since, Buckley has been the scourge of liberalism and liberal pretensions. In 1955, he assembled a distinguished cast of ex-communists and conservative academics looking for a venue for their ideas, and launched National Review magazine, whose job it was to "stand athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!'" In addition to being NR's editor-in-chief for over forty years, and writing a syndicated newspaper column, he was also the author of numerous books (inclusing several novels) and host of PBS's talk show The Firing Line for over thirty years. He engaged in many public debates on a variety of subjects, and somehow found time to be an avid amateur musician (piano and harpsichord) as well as an accomplished sailboat skipper (and wrote two or three books on that subject).

The rise of conservatism as a political force followed from Buckley's creation of an intellectual infrastructure, borrowing from traditionalists like Edmund Burke, libertarians like Albert Jay Nock, and the free-marker ideas of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. Barry Goldwater was the first presidential candidate who put the sparkle in the eyes of National Review, and though his candidacy went down in flames, the ideas surrounding Goldwater's conservative platform did not. It took Ronald Reagan to bring these ideas forcefully into the presidential arena, and though conservatives can complain that the Reagan Revolution wasn't complete, there is no denying Reagan's contribution toward vanquishing the Soviet Union as well as re-establishing the respectability of free-market economics. Buckley and Ronald Reagan became close personal friends, and Reagan was always quick to point out the impact that National Review had on his political thinking.

As a practitioner of the polemical arts, Buckley was second to none. Yet, he always did his job with a playful flair, often disarming his opponents with his rapier wit -- or enraging them, take your pick. He avoided the bitterness and rancor rampant in today's political punditry, always keeping his wits and good cheer. And his rhetorical skills were widely acknowledged and feared. In one debate, Buckley led a team of conservatives against a team of liberals led by Gary Hart, the former U.S. Senator from Colorado who had (by this time) run a bid to become the Democratic presidential candidate -- a bid that was derailed by an extramarital affair he had been having with a young woman named Donna Rice. (It seems almost quaint that, in the days before the unhousebroken Clintons left their unique stain on the national conscience, we used to hold political candidates up to some level of moral standard higher than zero degrees Kelvin.) During one of the cross-examinations, Buckley asked Hart whether it embarrassed him that one of Hart's own team members had once disagreed with the viewpoint Hart was putting forth. Hart replied, "Not in the slightest." Then came the famous Buckley grin -- sly, almost leering -- and his understated retort: "Does anything embarrass you?" The audience exploded in mirth, and if looks could kill, Hart probably would have spent his remaining days on death row.

Though Buckley's books tend to be timely and topical -- and thus now dated -- anyone not familiar with the power and grace of his writing ought to consider picking out a few of them and treating himself to some of the best, most luminous prose the English language has to offer. Many of his books are collections of his syndicated columns, and what you find is a fifty-year historical refresher course, dealing with controversies which are today mostly forgotten. The Hiss-Chambers case. The rise and fall of Joe McCarthy. The Warren Court, and the Warren Report. The "Great Society." Vietnam. Affirmative Action. Watergate. Khomeini. The Reagan years. However, some of his books were conceived as books, such as McCarthy and His Enemies (co-written with Brent Bozell) and Up From Liberalism, both books about the McCarthy era; The Unmaking of a Mayor, about his spirited but doomed bid to become mayor of New York (his first act of office would be "to demand a re-count"); and numerous others.

Buckley lost his beloved wife, Pat, last year, and in a recent appearance on Charlie Rose's show, admitted he had no longer any desire to continue life -- these weren't the words of a bitter man, but of a man who knew his life's work had been accomplished and there was nothing pressing here to keep him from God's presence. A devout Catholic, he was asked during a Playboy interview if he thought all dogmas, secular and theological, must inevitably fade. The response was pure Buckley: "Some, but not all. I know that my Redeemer liveth." He is survived by their son, Christopher, humorist and author of Thank You For Smoking. Once in an interview, Christopher said that his father was "the nicest person I know." No doubt you'll be hearing a lot of that kind of talk, from all who knew him.

He raised the standard. He fought the good fight. I will miss him. Rest in peace, Mr. Buckley.

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