Friday, March 7, 2008

Second Thoughts on the Passing of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Crimes Against Music says that my post on the death of Bill Buckley was "not quite skeptical enough on the subject" citing my statement "his wit and charm and intelligence were captivating." I can't really take those words back, for I still believe them, and unlike my critic I don't think Buckley "had a limited bag of rhetorical tricks, and not very sophisticated ones at that" although in the encounter with Noam Chomsky in the videos I included with that post, Chomsky bests Buckley, and of course, Buckley was wrong and Chomsky right.

I wrote what I wrote on the day Buckley died, and I was expressing some immediate thoughts and feelings. Even many of his harshest critics had similar thoughts about the man. Check out this interview with Lew Rockwell on Buckley's life. Rockwell calls him charming and charismatic and admires his abilities as musician (harpsichord), writer (much nonfiction and also spy novels), sailor (Buckley took and wrote about many ocean voyages) and so on. Rockwell, being a major Buckley critic, doesn't hesitate, however, to emphasize Buckley's role in laying the groundwork for the eventual takeover of conservatism by the neocon war crazies.

Joseph Sobran (who was fired by Buckley in 1993) wrote in 2004:

As the country moved leftward in the Sixties, Buckley became the first conservative celebrity, so familiar that comedians got big laughs imitating his haughty demeanor. Nobody else was on hand to nail liberals at every turn.

Today it’s hard to remember how controversial, and exciting, Buckley was in those days. His assimilation to the ranks of the respectable was completed in 1980, when a National Review subscriber, recently deceased, was elected president of the United States. I was on the magazine’s staff at the time, and I remember Bill’s delight in sharing jokes with his pal Ron.

Everyone at the magazine loved Bill. His charm was real. Despite his lofty public persona, he was warm, hilarious, and infinitely considerate and generous. A fat book could be written about his quiet good deeds, if anyone could trace them all; he performed them unostentatiously, with tact and delicacy.

Unfortunately, Bill tended to mistake his personal success and Reagan’s political victories for the final triumph of conservatism. He forgave Reagan’s compromises and made some of his own. He didn’t seem to notice that during the Reagan years, the Federal Government continued to grow at a rate that would have horrified Robert Taft. He was nearly as indulgent to the first President Bush, another Yale man, as he had been to Reagan.

In recent years, National Review has become remote from the thing it was in 1955. Buckley has turned it over to young neoconservatives with little conception of its original standards, who have supported the new Bush administration, and especially the Iraq war, with fanatical zeal, without regard to any philosophy that can be called conservative.

Buckley seems to realize this. In announcing his retirement to the New York Times, he admitted that the growth of the Federal Government under the current President Bush “bothers me enormously.” As for the war itself, he added, “With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”

Sad to reflect that the magazine has forsaken not only its founding purpose — to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop’” — but its founding philosophy of severely limited government. That philosophy was hard enough to reconcile with the Cold War; it’s impossible to square with endless imperialist wars.

Robert Poole writes:

I received the news of Bill Buckley's death with a great sense of loss. No, he was not a major intellectual influence on my becoming a libertarian. I have to credit Robert Heinlein and Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand for that. But since for most of us libertarianism as an intellectual and political movement has been an offshoot of conservatism, Buckley in truth was a great enabler.

By creating National Review in 1955 as a serious, intellectually respectable conservative voice (challenging the New Deal consensus among thinking people), Buckley created space for the development of our movement. He kicked out the racists and conspiracy-mongers from conservatism and embraced Chicago and Austrian economists, introducing a new generation to Hayek, Mises, and Friedman. And thanks to the efforts of NR's Frank Meyer to promote a "fusion" between economic (free-market) conservatives and social conservatives, Buckley and National Review fostered the growth of a large enough conservative movement to nominate Goldwater for president and ultimately to elect Ronald Reagan.

I was far more impressed years later, as Buckley held court every week on his long-running PBS series Firing Line. Charming and witty, he engaged his guests in intellectual colloquy or combat, as the case might warrant. Those programs were a feast for the mind, the likes of which hasn't graced the airwaves since Firing Line's demise.

Buckley was always far more cosmopolitan and sophisticated about sex, drinking, dining, and other human pleasures than his fellow-travelers among today's religious right. That helped make Buckley-style intellectual conservatism more acceptable in salons, boardrooms, and the corridors of power. And the fact that William Buckley could maintain genuine friendships with people such as socialist John Kenneth Galbraith and gay anti-communist activist Marvin Liebman says a lot about his open-mindedness and tolerance.

Of course, none of the good things about Buckley excuse the great harm that he did in promoting the National Security Warfare State (which was supposed to disappear after the defeat of communism, but surprise, surprise, did not).

I've included more videos, the first two of which are from ABC television's coverage of the 1968 election with Buckley and Gore Vidal as commentators. The last one is an hour long highlight show of Buckley's appearances on the Charlie Rose show. At one point Rose asks him if there is anyone up and coming on the political scene like himself. Buckley says no but adds that such a harbinger of political change would probably be a young socialist because socialism is as discredited now as conservatism was when Buckley was young. Maybe. I think the real harbinger of change will have to be someone, left or right, who challenges our interventionist foreign policy, including the influence of The Israel Lobby.

Sadly, Buckley talks also about death, saying that he is "definitely prepared to stop living on," being tired of the weariness and repetition of it all. Of course his health had declined greatly, but he says he wouldn't want to be 25 years younger even if he could, stating "I'm tired of life."

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