28 February 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr.

As a freshman at Yale, my best friend from high school, Kevin Pask, joined the Conservative Union in what I construed as one of those fits of perversity that led him on several occasions to vote for politicians he otherwise opposed. He was easily provoked on election days, and a single remark from a friend (“Are you voting for the Democrat?”) was enough to make him cast a ballot for the Republican. On any other day, Kevin was not a conservative. As a boy, he was thoroughly liberal — one of the first I ever knew — and his move from Dallas to New Haven hadn’t changed him. But he was always open to new ideas, and membership in the Union made available a slew of them, while linking him to a distinguished tradition on campus. One evening, a founder of that tradition came to visit, and his visit coincided with one of mine. And that is how I met William F. Buckley, Jr.

So far as I know, he charged the Union nothing for his appearance, and it was nothing like a speaking engagement, of the sort he accepted as often as 70 times per year, and for which he commanded handsome fees. Speaking to us this way was therefore generous and admirable, far from the preconception I had of him — namely, as a pompous ass.

For a couple of hours, a dozen or so young men gathered with him around a table, in a common room somewhere, and talked about political philosophy. He was relaxed, sipping white wine and slouching in his chair the way he always seemed to. (Now that he is dead, I realize that I can’t recall ever once seeing a picture of him sitting up straight.) His conversation was not a lecture, more a question-and-answer session, and it was certainly not a debate. For one thing, most of his listeners agreed with him, or appeared to do so, and for another, we didn’t have the requisite tools to debate him.

His use of language was extraordinary, of course, and throughout his career he was able to clothe his ideas and to defeat his opponents with Latinate grammar and a vocabulary so dense that I would have been excused for bringing a dictionary to the table at Yale. A ready wit made even his most odious opinions — and he had a lot of them — palatable, or at least entertaining to read.

But the brilliance of his language also obscured the failures of his logic, the inconsistencies of his positions, and the sometimes dirty, tangled roots of his thought. If any liberal had been as quick on his feet as Buckley was, it should have been possible to slice him to ribbons. Norman Mailer tried, but I’m not sure that anyone ever succeeded. None of us in New Haven that evening tried. I’m sure some of us secretly dreamed of it.

Much of Buckley’s thought and most of his sense of style can be traced to High Church Catholicism, which he practiced with a combination of arrogance and embarrassment, an anxiety that he might be mistaken for a Low Church Irishman. This led him to dress like a WASP, to speak like an Englishman, and to defend the establishment even when it was wrong. Among his more regrettable pronouncements and positions are an early defense of racial segregation, his notorious proposal that people with AIDS be tattooed on the buttocks, and his stubborn insistence that the whole purpose of marriage is procreation. Many of these positions made him an unlikely and rather objectionable host for the American broadcast of Brideshead Revisited, and yet Brideshead describes not only a gay romance, but also a very English quest for High Church faith.

Buckley saw his magazine, National Review, as a partly religious mission, and refused to hire Jews for certain jobs there; it was in the pages of the magazine that he wrote a lengthy, tortured analysis of the possible anti-Semitism of Patrick J. Buchanan, another conservative author, yet someone who seems to enjoy being taken for a Low Church Irishman, and whom Buckley held at arm’s length most of the time. For 14 pages, with expressed reluctance, Buckley weighed the evidence, which is copious and damning; it would be easy for clearer thinkers to state the case and reach the verdict in a few paragraphs. (To cite just one example, Buchanan has never met an accused Nazi he didn’t like, and very few that he didn’t champion.) Yet Buckley found nothing conclusive, nothing persuasive, until the end of the essay when he admitted that, yes, Buchanan might be inadvertently anti-Semitic. Though one might respect Buckley’s desire to give Buchanan a fair hearing, the essay wound up convicting its author, although arguably on a lesser charge.

No political philosophy holds a monopoly on reason, and Buckley was able on other questions to apply reason with a clear-eyed rigor that confounded his critics and admirers alike. He advocated the legalization of marijuana and opposed the war in Iraq, for example, things that most of his fellow travelers are still unwilling to do, or even think about.

He made of himself a character, a highly marketable brand name, and yet his airiest affectations seemed perfectly sincere in practice. He enjoyed his enthusiasms — Bach, sailing, literature, conversation, food and drink — and he shared them, dare I say it, liberally. He wrote prolifically, although apart from his first book, God and Man at Yale, no single title seems to have made much of an impression: it’s in the body of his work that his influence is felt. (Much of his influence has waned already — political debate programs on television now don’t resemble Firing Line at all.) In certain regards, one could do worse than to emulate him, and perhaps most especially in his visit to the Conservative Union, tending the newest flowers in the garden he’d planted long ago. If ever I have something to say, I must remember to say it at my alma mater, for free.