‘You Knew It Would Happen, You’re Not Prepared When It Does’
The Life and Death of William F. Buckley
by Alex Carnevale
It is an old story that the young ones are born Democrats and become Republicans once they have families and such. For a short time in my life, before I knew anything of consequence, I believed in progressive solutions to public policy. Government intervention seemed useful. I was in favor of the poor getting less poor, the powerful getting less powerful…of course I was a liberal. What else was there to be?
I regarded conservative columns in our local paper with total enmity. Cal Thomas made me ashamed of being a white person, for example. But then they started running Bill Buckley on a weekly basis. It soon became clear to me that he was the best writer in the newspaper, and the smartest.
Sam Tanenhaus takes questions about WFB:
Q: What is the most surprising discovery you’ve made while working on this biography of William F. Buckley Jr.?
Tanenhaus: There were two. First, he would rather talk about almost anything other than politics — literature, music, sailing, music. He once told me, “I only talk about politics when someone pays me to do it.” Second, I never heard him make a personally disparaging remark about anyone, even adversaries like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Gore Vidal. He might describe something they did or the style in which they did it, but never in an insulting or even critical way. He had a large sense of the human comedy.
Q: Who in your — or perhaps Buckley’s estimation should you know it — carries on his legacy of intellectual conservatism? If you had to nominate someone to ascend to the lectern of Buckley, who would it be?
Tanenhaus: Frankly, there is no one. He was an American original. He had no true predecessor and no plausible heir. The columnist who most resembles him is Michael Kinsley (not surprising since Kinsley was involved for a period in Buckley’s TV debate program “Firing Line”). Kinsley comes closest to approximating Buckley’s style of dismantling arguments not by stating his emphatic disagreement by rather by highlighting the internal contradictions in what his adversary had said or written.
Kinsley? Please. Mark Steyn has his wit, McWhorter his sense of morality, Ponnuru his actual morality, and Hitchens his sense of purpose.
wfb turned on the war in iraq in an infamous missive
The thing about WFB’s writing was that, he wasn’t out to convince you, at least directly. He just put down what was true and right, and approached it in a way that left you utterly convinced there was no other option. He might well be the most persuasive writer of all time.
Ramesh Ponnuru noted “He was the best line-editor I’ve ever had.” This should come as no surprise:
In his spare time at Millbrook, young Bill typed schoolmates’ papers for them, charging $1 a paper, with a 25-cent surcharge for correcting the grammar.
“Thirteen (Big Star cover)” – Wilco (mp3)
wfb dignifying himself to talk to michael kinsley
Chomsky debates WFB:
you knew it would happen, you’re not prepared when it does
WFB didn’t exactly come from modest means.
Buckley’s world was comfortable from the beginning. His evocations of a childhood spent sailing, swimming and riding are lovely; one can almost hear the din of the 10 Buckley children clamoring on the lawn while their father, a Texan who made money in oil and came east, chooses the evening’s red wine from the cellar. Born in 1925, Buckley grew up at Great Elm, a huge house in Sharon, Conn., learned repartee at the family dinner table, was educated privately, went to Yale, served briefly in the Central Intelligence Agency and became one of the most celebrated — deep breath here — authors/editors/columnists/pundits/political activists/novelists/Catholic apologists/bons vivants of the American century. His has been a life lived in the spotlight, savoring things that entertained him, fed his ego and tended to his comfort: klieg lights, applauding audiences, Atlantic sails, annual Swiss ski vacations, good wine, a custom-made limousine.
Bill’s first big splash was his book God and Man at Yale:
It caused quite the uproar. Bill went on to become one of the most versatile writers of all time, penning novels, columns, and journalism with equal aplomb. To wit:
Others of his books included a historical novel with Elvis Presley as a significant character, another starring Fidel Castro, a reasoned critique of anti-Semitism, and journals that more than succeeded dramatizing a life of taste and wealth — his own. For example, in Cruising Speed: A Documentary, published in 1971, he discussed the kind of meals he liked to eat.
“Rawle could give us anything, beginning with lobster Newburgh and ending with Baked Alaska,” he wrote. “We settle on a fish chowder, of which he is surely the supreme practitioner, and cheese and bacon sandwiches, grilled, with a most prickly Riesling picked up at St. Barts for peanuts,” he wrote.
russell kirk and wfb. if you don’t know who kirk is, pick this volume up:
He can be an Olympian name-dropper, but if you have to drop names, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Clare Boothe Luce, Tom Wolfe, Vladimir Horowitz, David Niven, Murray Kempton, William Shawn and Princess Grace are the ones to drop.
He embodied the opposite of white guilt – he recognized that he came from a culture that had a lot of positives, and he made no bones about the parts of Anglo culture he thought everyone should embrace.
From a delightful Andrew Ferguson piece about letters to National Review:
“You ridiculous ass,” begins one early letter. Another opens: “You are the mouthpiece of that evil rabble that depends on fraud, perjury.” And another: “You are a hateful, un-Christian demagogue.” “You are the second worst-dressed s.o.b. on television.” Mr. Buckley’s responses are equally pithy, though slightly higher toned and always more allusive. To one disgruntled reader who identifies himself, in his righteous indignation, as the Second Coming of Jesus, Mr. Buckley warns: “And I am the second coming of Pontius Pilate.” He sometimes composes his insults in Latin–a bit of one-upmanship that even Eustace Tilley would envy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes to complain about some perceived slight: “I might have hoped that you would have had the elementary fairness, or guts, to provide equal time; but, alas, wrong again.” “Dear Arthur,” Mr. Buckley replies. “I should have thought you would be used to being wrong.”
WFB made conservatism appealing. Even for my liberal readers, it’s important to understand the importance of a righteous, morally honest opposition. And that’s exactly what Bill was.
In 1976, Buckley wrote “Saving the Queen,” the first of 11 spy novels chronicling the life of Blackford Oakes, a striking and brilliant deep-cover CIA agent. Buckley created Oakes because in the rest of the spy genre the CIA and KGB were often portrayed as moral equivalents, two sides of the same macabre coin. For Buckley, what separated the two agencies, even if they shared some tactics, were their ends, and that made all the difference. America was a force for freedom and democracy, the U.S.S.R. for atheistic oppression and genocide.
bill’s wife pat, the former miss vancouver
“At My Most Beautiful” – R.E.M. (mp3)
Beyond love of God and love of country, is there a conservative ideology?:
That, of course, is no longer a question. Buckley’s morality in refining the purpose of the conservative moment was admirable: extreme right-wingers in this country would probably all be anti-Jew if it wasn’t for him. As it is, some still are.
National Review also helped define the conservative movement by isolating cranks from Mr. Buckley’s chosen mainstream.
“Bill was responsible or rejecting the John Birch Society and the other kooks who passed off anti-Semitism or some such as conservatism,” Hugh Kenner, a biographer of Ezra Pound and a frequent contributor to National Review told The Washington Post. “Without Bill — if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else — without him, there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country.”
To suggest to his listeners that any active intervention by the government would increase the “chance for that same success” for “every American child” is mischievous. To imply that such careers are open to most people, let alone every American child, is to foster frustration, and to stimulate disillusion. In 1948, when Senator Robert Taft announced that he was seeking the GOP presidential nomination, a reporter asked his wife, “Mrs. Taft, do you consider your husband a common man?”
She turned on him and said: “My husband was first in his class at Yale College. Then he went to Harvard Law School, where he graduated first in his class.”
national review’s 20th anniversary
Robert Taft was not to be likened to the common man, and neither is Barack Obama, who can do a great deal urging the younger generation to emulate what he, Obama, did in working to be educated, and mastering the law, and of course expressing gratitude to free American institutions that recognize and encourage advancement. But it is not unimportant to remind the voters of that generation that there is nothing, nothing that the state can do to replicate Obama’s success for a million others.
Buckley was the ultimate insider-outsider, bringing together a historically important political movement, fighting against the abandonment of morality, and saying what was good about the people we were, naming all the things that did not have to change.
The famous originating line of National Review – that it should stand athwart history, yelling Stop! – isn’t precisely what the magazine meant. It was in favor of free minds and free markets before Reason took on the slogan, it announced that the tyranny of communism (indeed, all tyranny) had to be silenced while the left sympathized with America’s enemies, and it focused on the institution of the family as a redress to evils like poverty and crime.
Our idols usually disappoint us. I know mine have. If I ever met Thomas Sowell he’d probably ask me where I went to college and never speak to me again. I thought many times about trying to meet WFB, but even for those who had the good fortune to be around him, it is difficult to say exactly what it meant.
As Charles Murray put it:
I had known only his cool, sometimes aloof public persona for years when I nervously met him for the first time at some forgotten function in the mid 80s. I said to Catherine when I got home, in amazement, “But he’s a sweetheart!” Utterly unpretentious, absorbed in whatever you had to say, he had the kind of manners that are so good that they cease being manners and become a warming aura. Yes, I know he changed the world, and I’m glad about that. But what so often occurred to me in his presence was that I was talking with an extraordinarily good man.
That he was gracious and kind is undeniable. But it was his public self that we had cause to admire, and his private self, his real inner life, remained more of a mystery. He abandoned some of his early ideas, but the age he lived in never forced him to change entirely. This is a testament to his ideas, and to his place in history. It is difficult to so often be right. To be caught up in the time in which we live is the meaning of what is progressive, and though it may be wrong, it is an easier place to live, simpler to think we have all the solutions the previous generation did not. William F. Buckley did it the hard way.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Another Day” – Air (mp3)
WFB LINKS TO SHARE WITH CHILDREN
WFB’s last column.
John Tierney on Buckley’s life and legacy (mp3)
John J. Miller’s chat about WFB
His NR author archive.
WFB on drug legislation:
Folks remember WFB’s wife Pat.
Terry Teachout on WFB.
WFB’s diaries at Slate.
Boston Globe obit.
Judis’ largely terrible bio:
Conservatism: the youngest ideology on the block.
Reason’s silly reluctance to claim one of the great advocates of libertarianism.
MY FAVORITES OF THE LAST YEAR OF WFB
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
WFB on 9/11.
Whatever happens in the end.
more pics here