William F. Buckley: the Gift of Friendship


William F. Buckley. 

The death of a man at age 82, after a productive, successful, event-filled life enriched by an unusually close-knit family and an enormous circle of friends and admirers, should hardly be the cause of sadness. I do have to say though that the passing of William F. Buckley, whose death has just been announced, makes me feel wistful and at a loss. Like countless other readers, I read Buckley not for his ideas but for his voice, that languid self-assured upper-crust tone that was saved from being offensively twee by a certain tart wit and generous capacity to engage with other points of view. No less a radical than Noam Chomsky once observed that Buckley treated his interlocutors with a courtesy that other mainstream debaters, whether liberals or conservatives, lacked. [Note: see POST SCRIPT below]. Buckley was simply a part of my mental furniture; it’s difficult to imagine a world without him, a world where that unique voice is silent.

There will be many obituaries, many tributes, many memoirs. His life story was well told by John Judis’s 1988 biography 1988 biography, which largely focused on Buckley’s politics. There is another biography in the works by Sam Tanenhaus which promises to be even better than Judis, because Tanenhaus has a stronger sense of Buckley’s personality and literary sensibility. (See here for a sample of Tanenhaus).

Rather than simply rehearse Buckley’s career, as a torrent of articles will do, I want to focus in on a few key themes in his life.

Race and his capacity for change. Conservatives are supposed to be defenders of the status quo but Buckley had a life-long capacity to change, adapt and learn. This can be seen most clearly on the issue of race. Like many Americans of his generation, Buckley was raised to be a bigot. His siblings once burned a cross in front of a Jewish resort. In the 1950s, Buckley and the circle of writers at National Review around him were unabashedly racist, often publishing whole-hearted defenses of Jim Crow segregation. This is evident in an 1957 editorial defending the Southern states from challenges to Jim Crow: “The central question that emerges … is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.” (National Review, August 27, 1957).

Despite this dismal stance, Buckley did in fact change and renounce racism by the mid-1960s, in part because his horror at the terrorist tactics used by white supremacists to fight the civil rights movement, in part because of the moral witness of friends like Garry Wills who confronted Buckley with the immorality of his politics. Buckley’s change was by no means pre-ordained. Some of his friends from the 1950s, notably Revilo Oliver remained adamant racialists (Oliver moved from National Review to the John Birch Society to the fringes of neo-Nazism). There are a host of other issues on which Buckley moderated his politics. In the 1980s, he said that if he were a black South African he would probably support the ANC, a statement that shocked fellow conservatives. This independence of mind continued to the end of his life. Not too long ago, he admitted that the Iraq war was a ghastly mistake, again annoying his intellectual fellow travelers. He was learning until his last days.

Rich in friendships. Some people can only be friends with likeminded thinkers (Norman Podhoretz suffers from this malady). Buckley was not like that at all. He had a gift for friendship, a gift that transcended the boundaries of ideology. John Kenneth Galbraith, the leading social democrat economist of the postwar era, was a ski buddy, and Murray Kempton, America’s supreme liberal columnist, a very close friend (Kempton dedicated his last book to Buckley). There were limits, of course: he loved Revilo Oliver and Joseph Sobran but once those men revealed themselves to be conspiracy obsessed and bigots, Buckley’s drifted away from them. This too spoke well of Buckley’s basic decency, as did the countless acts of generosity and quiet charity that characterized his life.

Buckley the editor. This is something that Judis ignored in his biography. Buckley was a literary man at heart, which can best be seen in his skill at discovering young writers. To read the book review section of the old National Review is to come across an amazing range of stylists who had either been discovered by Buckley or nurtured by his friendship: Arlene Croce, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, John Leonard, D. Keith Mano. As Buckley became disengaged from National Review, the magazine lost its taste for strong, distinctive prose.

The legacy. Journalism ages very poorly. Westbrook Pegler was the William Buckley of the 1940s, yet who now knows his name? Yet I think a few of Buckley’s books will survive, largely on the strength of his distinctive voice. I would particularly recommend Cruising Speed, a memoir of one week of Buckley’s life in 1970, which wonderfully captures a turbulent, contentious period as seen through a unique set of eyes.

Buckley will be widely and enormously missed. Rest in peace.

POST SCRIPT: John Klemme has questioned my statement: “No less a radical than Noam Chomsky once observed that Buckley treated his interlocutors with a courtesy that other mainstream debaters, whether liberals or conservative, lacked.”  

I based my comments on a column Christopher Hitchens wrote for the Nation which ran on Dec. 27, 1999. Hitchens wrote “People ask why you don’t see Noam Chomsky on the tube. It’s not just flat-out bias so much as the fact that his views are literally unutterable in the time and format available. I did my first Firing Line in 1983 and swiftly learned that if I left the studio cursing at what I hadn’t said, it was my own fault. Chomsky once told me that during the war in Indochina, the best opportunity he had to give his views on the air was afforded by Buckley.” Courteous was my gloss on this comment and what I meant by it was that Buckley gave Chomksy a forum to speak and allowed him to have his say — so much so that Chomsky came out looking better than Buckley on Buckley’s own show. The Buckley/Chomsky Firing Line debate can be found here.

But as Klemme rightly notes, Chomsky’s own account of his appearance on Firing Line differs in significant detail from Hitchens’s rendition and my gloss. For Chomsky’s own account see here. In the light of what Chomsky’s version, I would now write: “In 1969, no less a radical than Noam Chomsky was given ample time to condemn U.S. foreign policy on Buckley’s Firing Line programme, a rare event in American television.”  I apologize for the error.

20 thoughts on “William F. Buckley: the Gift of Friendship

  1. Witty, smart, gracious, and exciting to watch in debates. I once saw Buckley debate John Kenneth Galbraith in New Orleans – truly exciting to watch. Buckley walked up to the taller of the two podiums leaving the shorter podium to the 6’9″ Galbraith. The moderator informed Buckley that Galbraith’s podium was too short. Buckley replied, “That alright by the end of this debate that short podium will be plenty tall enough for Galbraith”.

  2. “The death of a man at age 82, after a productive, successful, event-filled life enriched by an unusually close-knit family and an enormous circle of friends and admirers, should hardly be the cause of sadness.”

    You are right! The death of this virulent war-monger and betrayer of conservative principles is a cause for joy, not sadness.

  3. He was smart and fun to listen to, for a conservative, but I’ll let Gore Vidal provide his epigraph: the supreme “crypto-fascist” of our time!

  4. Born well-to-do and not terribly curious, other than in the abstract, about how his theories affected those beneath his social caste. I come to bury, not to praise. Yes he was witty. Yes, he spoke in dulcet tones. But at the core of it, he was an unfeeling, uncaring bully. And I’d like to see where he formally renounced his stated racist sentiments, or his virulent screeds against AIDS sufferers, the most recent of which I read in 2005.

    Galbraith clearly had the likes of Buckley in mind when he wrote, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

  5. “… The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.”

    Well, the passage of time has certainly proved Buckley wrong about that, right? Now no one questions the egalitarians’ claims that blacks are just as intelligent and capable, on average, as whites. All you have to do is look at NLSY IQ tests, SAT scores, MCAT scores, GRE scores, etc. and see that, two generations after being freed from institutional racism, blacks easily hold their own against whites on objective measures of ability.

    Oh wait — that’s not true, is it?

  6. A Life Well Lived.

    Jewish tradition has it that when a soul appears before God’s throne, three questions will be asked:

    Did you marry?
    Did you buy and sell in good faith?
    Did you have a time set aside for study?

    Bill Buckley will be able to answer “yes” to all three.

    In good faith,

    E. David Litvak

  7. We’ve grown up in an age where the highest political debate in the land tends, consciously, towards the lowest common denominator. In Canada, my greatest detest for Paul Martin was for his purposely lowering the level of discourse of the country. It has been a great shame that Harper has continued that trend, so that we now can watch the leaders of our party in debate and know that none of them actually believe a word of what they’re saying, but fight violently for that magic formula for control of our dumbest citizens. Buckley’s greatest contribution was elevating discourse, publicly and popularly. National Review may have been great beans for the conservative cause, but Firing Line benefited all of us.

  8. Well said, David. I’m just working on a piece making that very point, that part of what made Buckley impressive was his willingness to debate thinkers of the caliber of John Kenneth Galbraith, Michael Harrington, Noam Chomsky, Germaine Greer, etc. He didn’t go after easy targets.

  9. Mr. Buckley suffered from diabetes and emphysema, his son Christopher said, although the exact cause of death was not immediately known. He was found at his desk in the study of his home, his son said. “He might have been working on a column,” Mr. Buckley said.

    William Buckley, with his winningly capricious personality, his use of ten-dollar words and a darting tongue writers loved to compare to an anteater’s, was the popular host of one of television’s longest-running programs, “Firing Line,” and founded and shepherded the influential conservative magazine “National Review.”

    He also found time to write more than 50 books, ranging from sailing odysseys to spy novels to dissertations on harpsichord fingering to celebrations of his own dashing daily life. He edited at least five more.

    In 2007, he published a history of the magazine called “Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription” and a political novel, “The Rake.” His personal memoir of Senator Barry M. Goldwater is scheduled to be published this spring, and at his death was working on a similar work on President Ronald Reagan.

  10. The Buckley quote is always worth re-reading, not to stoke the fires of righteous anger and tsk-tsk-tsk, but to recognize that an emotional argument can be framed in presumably intellectual terms if that’s what is called for at the moment. But it falls apart.

    Buckley eventually disavowed these comments, but only after years of ever-so-busy egalitarians changed public opinion away from the right wing conservative view and not because he was swayed by an intellectual counter-argument. Right wingers buckle to popular opinion when eventually forced to do so, then deny they did so.

    Liberty University eventually admitted their no-racial-mixing rule for marriages was racist and not biblically based, after decades of claiming the contrary.

    The Mormon Church eventually told us God stopped being racist in 1972, about 5 to 10 years after public opinion made God’s switch seem inevitable if He wanted to stay poopular.

  11. this is a great tribute. I became friends of sort with Bill in his final years and had dinner with him a few months before his death.

    While I think you slightly overstate his anti-civil rights position, this is still a fair tribute. I think Hitchens is quite right – Chomsky was given all the time he needed and I don’t think your apology was requiered. I personally felt the debate was a draw. I would also mention, if you are interested, a series on Bill and the left I wrote after his death: Crossing Swords: William F. Buckley jr. and the American left. It includes chapters on his debate with, among others, Baldwin, Macdonald, harrington, galbraith, mailer, chomsky, vidal and Kempton is covered in a concludng chapter.

    thanks much again for this — I miss Bill a lot and I am confident most thinking Americans do as well.

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