The Right Man at the Right Time
February 27, 2008
There’s no disputing that America would be a very different country right now if William F. Buckley — who died today at the age of 82 — had never been born.
Arriving at a time when American conservatives were seen as a bunch of knuckle-dragging racist Neanderthals, Buckley brought youthful dash and high intellectual style to the long, demanding project of reversing the gains of the New Deal and returning America to the Gilded Age and its coddle-the-wealthy- and-screw-everybody-else economic policies. That he brought urbane wit, immense personal charm and formidable erudition to this task made him all the more impressive. Every now and then that cockeyed smile would reveal the fangs of a spitting cobra (as happened in 1968 when he was co-commentator with Gore Vidal for ABC News during Democratic national convention, see above) but that was a rare thing. For the most part, you could disagree with Buckley and still like him.
Part of Buckley’s charm was that there seemed to be more to him than politics. At least two of his Blackford Oakes spy novels — Stained Glass and The Story of Henri Tod — deserve to be better known, though the rest of his novels are nothing to shout about. His column was nearly always worth reading until his writing and thinking went into a long decline starting in the late 198os. He was a full-time champion of Bach and a decent harpsichord player in his own right. When he wrote about sailing or music, Buckley could be downright inspiring.
Though he famously refused to debate members of the Communist Party, Buckley was ready to take on just about anybody else to promote his cause. When his debate program Firing Line debuted on public television, Buckley invited socialist Norman Thomas to be the first guest, and later said he was “a gallant figure, even as his causes were surrealistic.” That sort of chivalry, unthinkable from any of the scat-flinging howler monkeys who now stand in for conservative discourse, was a big part of the reason people retained affection for Buckley long after the ideas he promoted proved toxic to American life. It was a quality he shared with Ronald Reagan, whose presidency was the culmination of everything Buckley had worked to make possible, and their joint efforts applied a human, attractive face to what remained at bottom a philosophy of knuckle-dragging racist Neanderthals.
But if Buckley represents much that was good about political discourse, he also helped usher in most of what is vile about it as well. The magazine he founded, National Review, wouldn’t have lasted a year without heavy subsidies from various Daddy Wingbucks, though this apparently never troubled him as he preached the virtues of the untrammeled free market. Instead, it became the model for a movement whose minions would, for the most part, have a hard time sustaining themselves in the free market they claim to admire.
Buckley himself was a charmer, but his magazine sheltered a menagerie of some of the creepiest commentators around, and Buckley’s warm personality covered some chilling notions about the world. He earned himself lasting disgrace during the civil rights era by championing the Jim Crow South. Buckley was in front of the pack in the attempt to rehabilitate the image of Joe McCarthy. His laudable concern for human rights within the Soviet empire ended at the Iron Curtain; Buckley was dead wrong about the struggle against apartheid, and he praised vicious killers like Franco and Pinochet. When AIDS began to ravage the gay population, Buckley talked about quarantining homosexuals and forcibly tattooing AIDS sufferers. Though as an Irish-Catholic he was a member of a demographic that been subjected to relentless bigotry and religious discrimination for the better part of a century, Buckley was a tireless foe of secular government, and did whatever he could to tear at the wall separating church and state in America. Though towards the end of his life Buckley aired a few doubts about the Iraq invasion and Bush’s conduct in the White House, his qualms never led to anything more forceful or challenging.
By marshalling the creation of the infrastructure to nurture and promote the careers of young right-wing pundits, Buckley helped gain the world for conservatism but its victory came at the cost of its soul and, especially, its mind. The network of conservative foundations and journals, ringed about by talk-radio ranters, has produced a generation of intellectual veal calves like Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D’Souza, unable to function outside the insular, self-reinforcing wingnut babblesphere where a book like Liberal Fascism is taken as a serious analytical work. Look at the conservative bookshelf and you’ll see a Potemkin line of authors raised in an environment where independent thought is neither encouraged nor tolerated, where it is one’s duty to get into line and cough up ideological hairballs on cue.
The rabble of religious head cases and slick grifters that are clamoring for the Republican presidential nomination this year are, in every important sense, the political and intellectual progeny of William F. Buckley, and while they are much better off for his work, the rest of us can make no such claim.
Without William F. Buckley, America would be a different country. It would also be, in many vital ways, a much better one. For all the good things one can say about Buckley as an intellectual and a man, his chief political value is this: By pushing so strenuously and so long to get conservative ideas into the mainstream of discourse, and seeing them carried out by his favored politicians, Buckley has inadvertently exposed their worthlessness as anything but a means to reap tax benefits for the wealthy.
In the first issue of National Review, Buckley announced his intention to “stand athwart history” — i.e., the New Deal and the growth of modern American government — and cry “Halt!” To a large extent, he succeeded. It is now our task to get things moving again. William F. Buckley, wit and pedant, helped bring about an America that is coarser, stupider and more nakedly predatory than it has been since the bloody days of manifest destiny. Let him find his rest, and let America get a rest from him.