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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

A conservative with wit and style


One of a kind, William F. Buckley Jr. was a one-man show who for six decades relished one-upping the left. Whether in print, on television, from lecture podia or in salons where he and his rightist acolytes sipped port, he did it with grace and glee. Liberals, half-seduced by his charm and fully awed by the breadth of his mind, took to him as their favorite conservative. Not that the competition was heavy.

On his death at 82 in late February, Buckley was hailed as the godfather of American conservatism. The creation came in 1955 when he started the National Review, a weekly whose calling was to energize “the disciples of truth.” The first issue stated, somewhat grandly, that the magazine “stands athwart history yelling Stop.”

A nifty phrase, but a question lingers: Stop what and who? Doubters of the American Way? Shoeless free-spirits in Greenwich Village? Independent women? The godless rabble? Nuns who strum the guitar at Mass? People who read The Nation or The Progressive -- or worse, Pravda?

To me, political conservatism is little more than an oversized stop sign standing at society’s intersections demanding that travelers go no further until all-knowing policemen like Bill Buckley wave us through. Or if he was off-duty, perhaps tending to the needs of fellow aristocrats, there would be the Young Americans for Freedom, Barry Goldwater and the big guy himself, Ronald Reagan.

I have never understood how someone like Buckley -- quick-witted, grandly educated in the classics, discerning of nuances, a man who came from money and married money -- could bond intellectually or culturally with a dim bulb like Reagan. Perhaps he saw himself as a ventriloquist, propping the one-note president on his knee and lipping words into an empty head.

The conservative movement that Buckley pulled together lies in ruins. In place of “Firing Line,” his television program that ran from 1966 to 1999 on which he debated with élan everyone on the left from Noam Chomsky to Gloria Steinem, we now have the Limbaughs, O’Reillys and assorted dyspeptic ranters. “Firing Line” would become the Firing Squad, the cheap shot division.

In place of Buckleyan civility, we have right-wing snarlers like Tom Delay and Dick Cheney. In place of a Buckley newspaper column that provoked thought, we have right-wing columnists like Robert Novak and Charles Krauthammer who specialize in bile. In place of conservatives who think, we have vulgarians like Ann Coulter who smear. Neocons have become neo-Neanderthals.

Recent tributes to Bill Buckley flowed with encomia about his personal kindness, his enjoyment of friendship with people with disparate views and his devotion to family and Roman Catholicism. Perhaps those personal assets negated some of his professional aberrancies. He wrote in defense of the foul Sen. Joseph McCarthy; he believed for a time that, as The New York Times reported, “Southern whites had the right to impose their ideas on blacks who were as yet culturally and politically inferior to them.” He thought that for the betterment of society, people with AIDS should have their rear ends tattooed.

I first came upon the National Review in college in the late ’50s. My theology professor, a right-wing Jesuit who was fanatically anti-communist, promised to give his students extra credit if we would read the magazine. Grade-grubbers, we did. I found it entertaining, as I do today. National Review prose is ever crisp, easy to read because the ideas never get in the way.

My only connection to Bill Buckley is that I have his grandniece and his grandson in my classes this semester. Both are lovely and loveable children. I’m ecstatic to report that young Mr. Buckley is currently writing a paper on Eugene Debs and thoroughly enjoying his research on socialism. I’m hoping the lad submits his essay to the National Review. Hard to imagine an editor turning it down, if only for the historic first: an appreciative word about socialists.

Colman McCarthy teaches peace studies at four universities and three high schools in the Washington area.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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