William Buckley died today. I remember seeing him with Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut on Firing Line once. Now they have all three died within a year of each other. It brings to mind that line from Citizen Kane: "As it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane".
Buckley was instrumental in transforming the conservative movement into a cold war conservatism that supported a massive warfare state. And for all his supposed hatred of communism and its enforced conformity, he acted as his own Stalinist purger, declaring that certain people were not part of conservatism as he wanted it monolithically defined, e.g. the John Birch Society, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and as recently as 1993 with the firing of Joseph Sobran from National Review. Still, I had much affection for Mr. Buckley. His wit and charm and intelligence were captivating. He believed he was right when he was often wrong, but he could change his mind, as he often did, or take positions contrary to mainstream conservatism, e.g., the legalization of marijuana, support for the Panama Canal treaty (he debated Ronald Reagan on that one in the 70's) and most recently his opposition to the Iraq war.
His magazine was my introduction to conservative/libertarian ideas in written form (I had learned my early anti-liberalism from Los Angeles late night radio talk show host Ray Bream) and I still remember seeing National Review in the public library and devouring WFB's columns, later subscribing so I would never miss an issue.
I remember something he wrote after John Lennon's murder, taking issue with the lyrics of Imagine:
Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Buckley said how sad that was, that we should instead imagine Lennon as a companion of the angels. At the time I read that, which was years after Lennon's death, I was unsure of Heaven, but I was just coming out of evangelical Christianity, which viewed a John Lennon as anything but a companion of angels and more likely as a permanent citizen of hell. Buckley's thoughts made me see that there were intelligent people who believed in God but rejected something so indefensible as the idea of Lennon burning in the lake of fire forever. That meant a lot to me at the time.
Buckley's infamous debate with Gore Vidal in 1968 is ironic considering that Vidal turned out to be a big defender of the US Constitution and a real and important patriot, especially during these dark years of Bush the second.
William Buckley vs Gore Vidal:
Below is Buckley with Noam Chomsky in 1969 during the Vietnam War, when both men were in their 40's.
Buckley vs Chomsky Part One:
Buckley vs Chomsky Part Two:
Whatever your opinion of him, I think you can feel sadness at his passing.
Q&A on William F. Buckley