WFB RIP

I met William F. Buckley Jr. on just a couple of occasions. He gave a talk at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis back around 2000 — one of his last campus talks. He had some spare time in his schedule, including time for a chat with my conservative group at Washington University (which is almost next door to Concordia). What I remember most clearly of the event was a question one student asked about a local Missouri issue: whether the Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to adopt a highway. Buckley didn’t find the issue problematic — no, he said, and state governments are not under any obligation to treat such groups the same way they treat, say, the Kiwanis club or the Washington University fraternities that adopt highways.

Buckley was a brilliant writer and sparkling debater and public personality, especially in his prime. He could charm and disarm practically any opponent, and that quality allowed him quickly to win the approval of the liberal establishment he attacked — much of it, anyway.

His effect on conservatism — on what he still called individualism when he rose to fame in the early 1950s — was revolutionary. The lions of the Old Right were quite old by then, those who were still alive at all. The anti-New Deal Right needed new leadership, and Buckley seemed to be the most articulate and promising young man on the scene, by far. Buckley, however, was a committed cold warrior, a contrast to Old Right figures like Frank Chodorov, John T. Flynn, and Felix Morley, who were still active in the 1950s. Buckley usually — always, to the best of my knowledge — spoke fondly of them. But he took the Right in a very different direction, toward military intervention and a more imperial foreign (and, ultimately, with the concentration of power in the executive, domestic) foreign policy. A famous quote of Buckley’s from Commonweal magazine said that if we had to build a totalitarian bureaucracy on these shores to resist Soviet Communism, so be it.

As charming as he could be to his enemies on the left, when he chose to excommunicate a former friend or colleague from the respectable Right, he was ruthless. The anathemas he pronounced stretched to the grave and beyond, as witness his savage and inaccurate obituary for the libertarian Murray Rothbard, whom Buckley accused of being soft on Khrushchev. Without necessarily agreeing de mortuis nil nisi bonum (that one should say nothing but good things about the dead) even someone less of an admirer of Rothbard than I am might agree that the poor taste and manners on display in Buckley’s obituary reflect poorly on the man who wrote it.

Why would such a socially graceful individual as Buckley write such a thing? Maybe it was ideology: Buckley was so committed to the cold war and all the cliches of cold-war conservatism that anyone at variance with that creed, especially an outspoken “heretic” like Rothbard, could only be a monster. Buckley was a man of tremendous talents. Yet I wonder how much wisdom he had. Toward the end of his life, he found himself critical of the direction conservatism had taken in continuing to support the war in Iraq, a direction that National Review followed wholeheartedly. But the magazine Buckley founded was following the tradition he had set down. WFB may have wished that he had taught his own disciples differently. For my part, I wish he had listened more closely to Frank Chodorov in the 1950s.

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13 thoughts on “WFB RIP

  1. Jack Ross February 28, 2008 / 12:56 am

    I remember being surprised just last year when Buckley was rather demeaning in his obituary for Ralph de Toledano, with whom his differences were nothing compared to Rothbard!

    There’s a case to be made for actively avoiding portraying the recently deceased as saints, but Buckley was probably more generally mean spirited then that. I’m inclined to bascially believe what Rothbard et al always said about him, that he took over the right on behalf of the CIA, and from what I read of his writings on Iraq he was vehement in insisting that this changed nothing fundamental about his worldview and its legacy, in striking parallel to his liberal counterpart, Arthur Schlesinger, in his ultimate opposition to Vietnam.

    But I’ve also read his youthful Nockian correspondence with the verboten ones from the 50s, so perhaps we’ll never know what he really felt in his heart of hearts.

  2. Daniel McCarthy February 28, 2008 / 2:21 am

    Thanks, Jack. I missed Buckley’s obituary for Toledano. I’m going to have to look it up.

  3. dylan waco February 28, 2008 / 5:33 am

    The “respectable right”. That really says it all.

    As someone turned on to conservatism by Bill Kauffmans “America First!”, it is hard to find much worthwhile in the man who transfromed the American Right from a somewhat populist, ecclectic, agrarian, anti-interventionist force into a bastard cousin of the consensus liberalism that decimated the few worthwhile aspects of the American Left. Buckleys elitism was a charming but ultimately destructive force.

    I acknowledge the man did much good in advancing conservative causes into the mainstream, but that was in and of itself the problem. The desire to “mainstream” ideas that were diametrically opposed to the establishment, guaranteed a corruption of the movements goals. In the end Buckley did more to make conservatism a harmless (and arguably meaningless) cause than nearly anyone else.

    Dylan

  4. Kevin February 28, 2008 / 10:03 pm

    “Why would such a socially graceful individual as Buckley write such a thing?”

    Wonder why you did too.

  5. Daniel McCarthy February 29, 2008 / 12:41 am

    Thanks for your comment, Kevin. I have to admit, I’m puzzled: I assume you mean I’ve been unkind to WFB. I don’t see it that way. He had many virtues and admirable qualities; he also subscribed to a flawed ideology. I offered what I considered a fair assessment of the man — neither a nasty broadside of the sort that was published when Rothbard died, nor a hagiographic appreciation of the sort that are proliferating by the hour.

  6. ED G. February 29, 2008 / 8:18 am

    Yes, the hagiographers seem to be running rampant. It’s interesting how their accounts of WFB’s life leave out all of his nastiness. By the way, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on the LRC blog as well.

  7. A Different Kevin Than the One Above February 29, 2008 / 9:34 pm

    I thought this about summarizes my thoughts on the topic. I think Buckley took a right wing that could have been, for lack of a better word, dangerous to the liberal establishment and the powers that be and tamed it.

    Every obituary I’ve read in the liberal press hails Buckley for his charming personal manner and his purges of “racists” and “extremists.” They then condemn him for the authentically right wing comments he had on matters such as the Civil Rights Act (also opposed by Goldwater) and Joe McCarthy. In the end, he prepared the way for the socially liberal and pro state neocons that shadowbox with more extreme leftists on the evening news.

    The conservative movement, failed, and failed spectatcularily, at fighting the growth of the state and the collapse of the culture. However, we have a huge military, an interventionist foreign policy, and access to the swanky parties in DC. In the end, I think that’s where their priorities were.

    I think Dan was very evenhanded. If you want to read a really savage obituary from someone Buckley excommunicated, read Peter Brimelow’s on vdare.com

  8. Scott Lahti March 1, 2008 / 4:42 am

    Cross-posted at Rod Dreher’s Crunchy-Con blog: blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2008/02/one-last-time-with-wfb.html.comments.html

    A few more tributes:

    Don’t miss one of the best big-newspaper valedictions so far, by Henry Allen in The Washington Post, the only treatment genealogically literate enough to refer to both those “Tory-anarchist” curmudgeons, Albert Jay Nock and Dwight Macdonald:

    William F. Buckley Jr., Rapier Wit Of the Right
    washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/27/AR2008022703901.html

    “…there wasn’t much MacDonald could do with puns such as the one that appeared in the National Review when it was learned that the American Academy of Dermatology and Syphilology was dropping the last two words of its title: “Skinicism is only sin deep.”

    For a fond retrospect on Firing Line, which amid the Niagara-to-Hell of latter-day cable and talk might as well be (after Kipling) “One with Nineveh and Tyre”, see

    On TV, Buckley Led Urbane Debating Club
    nytimes.com/2008/02/29/nyregion/29buckley.html

    “He insisted on addressing his guests as “Mr.” Or “Mrs.,” though he once accidentally called Mrs. Thatcher “Margaret” because he thought she’d called him “Bill.” (When, upon reading a transcript of the episode, he realized she had been referring to a bill of legislation, he was extremely embarrassed, said Richard Brookhiser, a conservative writer and a frequent guest on the program.)…Mr. Buckley had a soft spot for any kind of wordplay — even if it was at his expense, or even if it was not as highbrow as he. “I was on the show when he had Muhammad Ali on, and he had his own approach,” Mr. [Jeff] Greenfield said. “Ali said to Bill, ‘You’ve got the connection of the complexion.’ Buckley chuckled at that.”

    “And there was the time that Allen Ginsberg asked Mr. Buckley’s permission, in the middle of an episode, to sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna.

    “That was a howl — sorry, sorry about the word choice,” Mr. Brookhiser said. “Bill was very gentle with him. He said of course.”

    “Mr. Ginsberg proceeded to play a long and doleful number on a harmonium, chanting along slowly and passionately, Mr. Brookhiser said. “And when he was finished, Bill said, ‘Well, that’s the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard.’ ”

    For a priceless Q-&-A by WFB’s doubtless-definitive biographer-in-progress, Sam Tanenhaus (Whittaker Chambers, 1997), with readers of The New York Times, whose Book Review and Week in Review he helms alike, see

    papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/27/qa-with-sam-tanenhaus-on-william-f-buckley/

    “Q: Am I wrong in thinking that Mr. Buckley served as an infantry company commander in World War II? If so, in what unit and in which theater of operations did he serve? —Hillard Gordon

    “A: He served in the U.S. Army but did not make it overseas. He did, however, oversee a sexual hygiene operation on a base in Texas.

    “Q: William F. Buckley famously admitted to having smoked pot at least once on his boat outside U.S. territorial waters. Did he continue to smoke it after trying it? What if anything did he say about the subject? —Rich Turyn

    “A: If so, only seldom. But Buckley was much piqued by the counter-culture. He recently told me an amusing anecdote on this general subject. In the 1970s, Buckley and one of his mentors, the political thinker James Burnham, decided they would indulge in some current vices by smoking pot and then watching the sex-drenched film “I am Curious — Yellow.” The pot was procured by Bill’s chauffeur. It was a good plan — or seemed so, except they made the mistake of drinking alcohol first. This blunted the effects of the pot, and they both fell asleep during the film.

    From a Washington Post Q-&-A with National Review national political correspondent John J. Miller:

    washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2008/02/27/DI2008022701866.html

    “Los Angeles, Calif.: This is Tim Page writing in from California, where I am taking a leave from The Post. I knew Bill Buckley only slightly but was always astonished by his warmth and generosity toward people who were on different sides of the political spectrum, and thought I’d share a personal reflection.

    “When I collected Glenn Gould’s writings in a volume for Knopf, a couple years after GG died, I wrote to Buckley out of the blue to suggest a “Firing Line” program on the question of whether the live concert had indeed been superceded by the recording, as Gould had claimed. Buckley responded immediately and turned a whole hour of prime PBS time over to this rather recondite subject, with former Met director Schuyler Chapin and harpsichordist Rosalyn Tureck as the other guests.

    “Remember that this was 1985, long before the days of C-Span and BookTalk. It was uncommonly gracious of him — and it proves, once again, how deeply interested he was in many subjects far removed from the political arena.

    “I think a lot of people who didn’t necessarily agree with everything Buckley wrote are missing him today. He had a genius for friendship and I can’t think of anybody quite like him.

    “John Miller: This is a great remembrance. WFB was a real renaissance man who had genuine musical talent. He learned how to play the harpsichord at an advanced age and performed publicly…”

    From an editorial in the Marysville, California, Appeal-Democrat:

    appeal-democrat.com/articles/buckley_60901___article.html/national_review.html

    “He recognized the futility and cruelty of the drug war early on and crusaded against it eloquently. Buckley loved the English language like a second child and may have helped to delay its slide into vulgarity just a bit. On his TV program, “Firing Line,” he let adversaries have their say and engaged them civilly and politely, in sharp contrast with the almost incoherent shouting matches one sees on cable news channels these days. Those who worked with him attest to his graciousness and generosity.

    Few writers can say they had any impact on the political and cultural landscape. William F. Buckley Jr. had a monumental impact. Requiescat in pace.”

    Stephen Colbert devoted his longest segment [at 6:19 about thirty-two percent] of Thursday night’s Colbert Report to a tribute to WFB that was at once funny and stirring – including an interview with NR elder Richard Brookhiser [click on latter’s screen-shot]:

    comedycentral.com/colbertreport/videos.jhtml?episodeId=162598

    Finally, of the tens of thousands of words I have read these past two days in memoriam, none stirred this former Borders bookseller of a decade as did this simple snapshot afforded by a staffer from another branch, which rings as true of my hundreds of workmates in stores across Virginia and Maine as it does of Buckley in his essence; from the Tanenhaus Q-&-A linked above:

    121.
    February 27th,
    2008
    3:25 pm

    ** I am not sure my first repsonse went through. I apologize if this is a repeat posting**

    This is not a question but a memory. For years I was the events coordinator at a chain bookstore in Stamford, CT. Mr. Buckley was a frequent visitor. He liked talking to the staff which were usually on the 30 and under side and in turn, they loved talking to him. He sometimes spent a few hours at the store telling stories, hearing stories and he seemed happy to be there. He knew all of us by name and became a true mentor to a number of the people there. Never hurried or arrogant, he was a genuinely charming and lovely man.

    Anne

    — Posted by Anne”

  9. R J Stove March 1, 2008 / 5:12 am

    Hmmmm, pace Jack Ross, I’m not sure I would’ve called WFB’s obit of Toledano “rather demeaning”. Very sad, yes, in its account of Toledano’s bitterness at being under-appreciated. Reading the WFB obit makes me wish I’d summoned the courage to write to Toledano – purely as a stranger – and to tell him how much I’d admired his articles for TAC and Chronicles, his biography of J. Edgar Hoover, and so forth. Too late now, at least in this life.

    The moral of this comment is, I suppose, when you like a non-bestselling writer’s stuff, let him know before he dies about your liking for it.

  10. Daniel McCarthy March 1, 2008 / 6:42 am

    I’ll post some excerpts from WFB’s Toledano obit. I worked with Toledano in the last two years of his life as his editor at TAC. I never met him in person, but did talk to him on the phone on several occasions and corresponded with him. “Sad” is not a word I would have used to describe him; not even close. He was exuberant in most of the interactions I had with him, very eager to keep publishing and not discouraged at all when I would turn down a piece. Buckley knew him better, of course, and surely Toledano had reasons to feel jilted by the conservative movement. But the Buckley obit paints him as some kind of a loser, and that wasn’t how Toledano thought of himself and it’s not how I, or I think most others who had read his work, thought of him. I don’t doubt that he had his grievances with the conservative movement, and maybe even some regrets (though nothing he ever said to me sounded regretful), but he wasn’t the kind of down-and-outer you’d think from Buckley’s obit. I’m even more scandalized by that obit (thanks to Kevin Michael Grace for sending it to me, by the way) than I am by the Rothbard obit, since Toledano was, presumably, still his friend until the end. I think that obit did a dismal disservice to a fine man.

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