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.