The Return of William F. Buckley Jr.


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For over three decades, from the early 1950s to the 1980s, William F. Buckley Jr. commanded the conservative intellectual universe.

He was articulate, charming, witty and ubiquitous. He founded the most influential conservative magazine, National Review, wrote a (thrice) weekly column, hosted arguably the most riveting television political talk show in history, Firing Line, and made thousands of media appearances and speeches. Along the way, he published over 50 books that included collections of essays, political and sailing memoirs, memoirs of great leaders or events, novels and, just for the fun of it, a children’s book and a play.

He was diminished finally (and only marginally) in the 1980s by the emergence of an intellectual and political progeny that he himself sired, all of them — including Reagan, Will and Limbaugh — oriented to one degree or another in the direction of the great man of Stamford.

What, then, does Bill Buckley have left to teach us?

Quite a lot, it happens. Roger Kimball, an editor of the New Criterion, and Linda Bridges, Buckley’s long-time editor and assistant, have brought to fruition a new book, Athwart History: Half A Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations. Kimball informs readers in the introduction that half of the pieces gathered in this substantive collection have never appeared in book form previously — which is remarkable given that Buckley published at least ten collections of his nonfiction work, including essays, speeches, correspondence and appreciations.

Athwart History, then, is an impressive enterprise. It provides readers a glimpse of Buckley performing as the virtuoso man of political letters. We see Buckley the ideologue, the anti-communist, the free enterprise crusader; we also see Buckley the man of faith, the devoted friend, the logician, the keen observer of events, all ideology and political allegiances aside.

This is the most impressive book by Buckley since his speeches were collected a decade ago in Let Us Talk of Many Things. Both remind us that conservative ideas thoughtfully presented are compelling because they appeal to eternal verities — faith, hope, liberty.

The editors spent a year culling through Buckley’s gargantuan collection of papers and writings, a daunting undertaking. Consider that his son Christopher, at Buckley’s memorial service, suggested that Buckley’s Yale papers– if stacked — would reach as high as the St. Patrick’s Cathedral spire, a fitting observation if one recalls Buckley’s heavenly aspirations.

Kimball and Bridges have done an admirable job of including an eclectic array of work here: excerpts from previously published books, well known essays and appreciations, and columns otherwise lost to the archives. But even here they have chosen a slightly unorthodox approach. Take the excerpt from Up from Liberalism. The most famous words from this book, and perhaps the most important, are Buckley’s summation of the conservative manifesto of his time – that he would not willingly cede more power to the state, to big corporations or to any other form of collectivity. But Kimball and Bridges have chosen a different section to present, one that is perhaps less eloquent, but more analytical as Buckley dissects the failed logic of the modern worldview.

Conservatism must insist that while the will of man is limited in what it can do, it can do enough to make over the face of the world; and that the question that must always be before us is: What shape should the world take, given modern realities? How can technology hope to invalidate conservatism? Freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of the conscience, the spiritual view of life—can these verities be transmuted by the advent of tractors and adding machines? These have had a smashing social effect upon us, to be sure. They have created a vortex into which we are being drawn as if irresistibly; but that, surely, is because the principles by which we might have made anchor have not been used, not because of their insufficiency or proven inadaptability.

Buckley’s anti-communist writings are powerful, for he rarely appeals to crude polemics or hyperventilating rhetoric. Buckley is an idealist, and he is motivated by a compelling vision — that the individual has worth and that any state system that crushes the individual crushes, ultimately, a child of God. Communism crushed people with as great an efficiency as any political system in history — including fascism. Hitler’s reign, destructive and nasty as it was, would last just over a decade. The communist reign of terror — from its heartland of Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe to Africa and Asia lasted much longer and consumed, with nary a protest from much of the left-wing intellectual community, tens of millions of individuals.

Buckley found this appalling and he convinced others that it was appalling at a time when the killing fields went barely noticed by many of our most respected and esteemed intellectuals and public figures. Buckley did notice and he refused to be silent:

Karl Marx was a genius, an uncannily resourceful manipulator of world history who shoved everything he knew, thought, and devised into a Ouija board from whose movements he decocted universal laws. He had his following, during the late phases of the Industrial Revolution. But he was discredited by historical experience longer ago than the Wizard of Oz: and still, great grown people sit around, declare themselves to be Marxists, and make excuses for Gulag and Afghanistan.

Anti-communism and anti-materialism are just two of the themes to emerge from the collection. We are also reminded that Buckley was  a forceful opponent of the state and those of us who remember his emergence as an elder statesman might forget the fury with which he could dismiss the statist enterprise. Most people are not drawn to public service by high ideals, he suggested, but by power.

“Power. That is the great aphrodisiac,” he wrote. And he concluded, in a 1993 column, “our governments are, for the most part, the enemy. The government, John Adams wrote, `turns every contingency into an excuse for enhancing power in itself.’ That was almost two hundred years ago. How right he was. Our enemy, the state.”

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  • Striper

    Win, lose, or draw, anyone that can claim to be a conservative needs to pay some hommage to William F. Buckley. As a young child, I remember seeing Fireline on the TV. This was not your regular network news. Even as a young crumb-cruncher, I was drawn torward this intellectual combat in the name or righteousness and freedom. Real conservatism goes back thousands of years. It waxes and wanes as it rises and falls. Yet during Buckley's day's, the forces of collectivism were on the march. He held the torch high and walked the lonely road of being assaulted from an intellectual standpoint day to day and year to year. I'm sure he licked his wounds sailing around the world. He prooved that the pen is mightier than the sword. He fought longer than he should have, but only because the country would suffer in his abscence. To anyone that thinks that one man can not make a lasting difference, Bill Buckley is your man.

    I always kept a dictionary close by when listening to Buckley. His command of the English language was exceptional.

    • Rob

      If I may selfishly relate what you said to myself…Limbaugh's English and his way of handling people's attitudes are what made me impressed by him. Had to use a dictionary too.

      I think what you said captures the spirit of what draws this movement together.

  • JasonPappas

    Buckley was a man of his time. He fine tuned his message for the battle of his day. In his day it was Communism and his message was two fold: it impoverish man both materially and spiritually. Give the man his due; he fought the good battle.

    His emphasis on Communism’s Godlessness however made him blind to the threat of Islam that we now face. Like Reagan, whom I have the utmost respect, he couldn’t believe that a religion could be as vicious and as bad as Communism.

    Here’s my review of his thought on the Islamic threat when he was alive: http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/2005/11/slo

    For today's battle we need new leadership. Buckley (actually Frank Meyer) created the "fusion" of classical liberalism and traditional conservatism that opposed Communism. Who today will created the new movement that will consolidate the right in the face of the Islamic threat?

  • Jim C.

    I am also an admirer of Buckley, though time has tempered that admiration. Where once I'd been awed by his presentation, if you will, I became less impressed due to a maddening lack of specificty. Case in point:

    "Radical conservatives…are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity."

    So just of whom is he speaking? Never one to name names on such a score, Buckley is given to dazzling pronouncements that stir conservative hearts–but when scratched, was really something much more moderate, all told. Of course, Ronald Reagan, politically, was less dogmatic and much more canny than the graven idol worshipped today,

    • USMCSniper

      Ayn Rand made the case against the welfare state root and branch. She was the first to make a secular case against Communism and Socialism, and the first to make a fully secular defense of American values. The fact that her ideas were shut out by William F, Buckley hurt the entire cause of Americanism. The real issue with Buckley is that he truly had nothing to contribute intellectually. And when faced with a true intellectual like Rand, all he could do was resort to persoanl guttersnipe. These days people are flocking in the millions to read "Atlas Shrugged." They are not burning a hole in their wallets to buy "God and Man at Yale."

  • William Phillips III

    I'm thrilled that a new book with fresh Buckley writings is available. My first recollections of him were in the early 70s watching "Firing Line' on Sunday afternoons. His books are treasured memories of a man who lived a life so joyful, so productive, and so generous that he can't help but leave a huge void. I miss him almost as much as I miss my own father, both from the same generation. Rest in Peace Bill.

  • USMCSniper

    I personally think that William F. Buckley was a self-absorbed pompous bloviating asshole. The real issue with Buckley is that he truly had nothing to contribute intellectually. And when faced with a true intellectual like Ayn Rand, all he could do was be insulting and resort to personal guttersniping like his liberal colleagues. Ayn Rand provided the correct intellectual justification for capitalism and liberty and she did so by reference to the fundamental metaphysical facts of reality and human existence. She did not appeal to tradition or the supernatural. She appealed to the rational and logical. And the public has been responding to her positively ever since. Ayn Rand made the case against the welfare state root and branch. She was the first to make a secular case against Communism and Socialism, and the first to make a fully secular defense of American values. The fact that her ideas were shut out by Buckley hurt the entire cause of Americanism. These days people are flocking in the millions to read "Atlas Shrugged." They are not exactly burning a hole in their wallets to buy "God and Man at Yale" that may sell at most, a few copies each year.

  • USMCSniper

    Why di you not post my negative comments on Mr Buckley, who I really think was a pompous bloviating ass with little to contribute intellectually that was significant. This isn't becoming like the Daily KOS or the Huffington Post I hope.

    • William Phillips III

      Mr. Buckley had more intellect in his little finger than you obviously have in your entire 'brain'. You are apparently the product of a poor upbringing and need to discover such things as books.

      • USMCSniper

        The issue with William F. Buckley is that he truly had nothing to contribute intellectually. If you think so, what was it? And when faced with a true intellectual like Ayn Rand, all he could do was resort to personal guttersniping. Ayn Rand made the case against the welfare state root and branch. She made the secular case against Communism and Socialism long before Buckley, and was the first to make a fully secular defense of American values. The fact that her ideas were wrongly shut out of the conservative country club crowd by Buckley really hurt the entire cause of freedom in America. These days people are flocking to read "Atlas Shrugged." They are not reaching for their wallets at all to buy "God and Man at Yale." That is proof enough.

        • Richard

          Sniper, I can only refer you to what Whittaker Chambers said about Ayn Rand and ATLAS SHRUGGED, that throughout it is the whisper of "To the gas chamber, go…."

          I recently reread ATLAS SHRUGGED, and was astounded at what a poor writer she is. The characters are flat, and I practically had to flog myself to finish it. For all her celebration of "the individual", there is no warmth, no humanity….

          • USMCSniper

            If you are a conservative, I guess you prefer a sensitive man Glen Beck (although alot of what he says is good) having a good public cry or if you are a liberal, Oprah with her emotional self indulgence and charlatan psychologizing. Her writing style is long sentences unlike Hemingway's short sentences, but her substance is deep – and many people do not process her well without a couple of rereads.

  • USMCSniper

    Try Again. The issue with William F. Buckley is that he truly had nothing significant to contribute intellectually. And when faced with a true intellectual like Ayn Rand, all he could do was resort to personal guttersnipe. Ayn Rand provided the intellectual justification for capitalism and liberty and she did so by reference to the fundamental metaphysical facts of reality and human existence. She did not appeal to tribal tradition or the mystical and supernatural. Ayn Rand made the case against the welfare state root and branch. She was the first to make a secular case against Communism and Socialism, and the first to make a fully secular defense of American values. The fact that her ideas were shut out by Buckley hurt the entire cause of Americanism. These days people are flocking to read "Atlas Shrugged." They are not burning a hole in their wallets to buy "God and Man at Yale." according to Jesph Mchugh

  • Charles

    To USMCSniper:

    Buckley was a genius! Neither a philosopher nor a politician, he was a brilliant promoter and gadfly for the conservative cause and for conservative Christianity. He was a non-pareil debater, an author and publisher who essentially personified conservatism during his productive years which were remarkably long. He also loved the English Language and clearly delighted in having its more obscure but utterly apt words roll off his tongue. He was an absolute delight, performed a wonderful service to our country, and I'm sorry you seem unable to appreciate him. Your loss!

    • USMCSniper

      Buckley's contributions to philosophy or political science are at best regurgitations of the conservative originators that are badly rewritten. Debater? Not really, when faced with a true intellectual like Ayn Rand, all he could do was resort to personal guttersnipe. Ayn Rand made the case against the welfare state root and branch. She was the first to make a secular case against Communism and Socialism long before Buckley, and the first to make a fully secular defense of American values. The fact that her ideas were shut out by Buckley and his country club conservatives hurt the entire cause of American freedom. These days people are flocking to read "Atlas Shrugged." They are not burning a hole in their wallets to buy "God and Man at Yale."

  • Optimus Maximus

    As a young man, just turned 14 years old, I was fascinated watching the coverage of the Democrat and Republican conventions in 1968.

    Buckely was the conservative commentator, and Gore Vidal was the liberal commentator.

    Buckley became one of my heroes during those two weeks when I was first exposed to his thoughts and arguments. I laughed uproariously at the shenanigans between Buckely, Vidal, and if memory serves, Howard Smith attempting to referee.

    I've read nearly every thing he has written, mostly with a dictionary close to hand.

    He was an original, a true patriot, and one of the few of our native upperclass Northeasterners who remained willing to agressively defend the free market and individual liberty principals upon whcih this nation was founded, and which made it a world power economically within record time.

    God Bless you Bill, and I hope you are enjoying sailing somewhere in heaven.

  • USMCSniper

    If thiswere ancient Rome, as Emperor I would line the Appien Way on with burning crucifixtions of all the Congressman and Senators, and President Buraq Hussein would meet he Champion Gladiator of Rome and be executed as gladius for what they and he have done to the Empire. Buckley wouldn't approve, of course, that is too alpha male for him!

  • badaboo

    Anyone mentioning Limbaugh and Buckley in the same sentence knows NOTHING of Buckley . You can read all the books on Buckley you want , if you hadn't watched him on Sunday mornings , and most of you haven't , then you are simply parroting rhetoric .
    As for you USMCsniper ? I 'd love to see someone like you on his show , the debate no matter what the subject , would be over after your first statement ..
    As for the psuedo-conservatives of today ? They'd be toast .
    Buckley was intelligent ,fair , levelheaded , precise , and above all a lover of free-speech but of the civilised type . I watched every one of his shows that I could from my freshman year of high school until the end .
    What you have today is about the same as Joe Pine versus Alan Burke ….lol…and Burke . last time I heard was in Florida criticizing the right , 180 degrees from his anti-left days .
    Buckley's turning in his grave over what are called "conservatives ' today .

    • USMCSniper

      I also used to watch Buckley on Firing line regularly on Sundays and later on PBS (this was Buckley as the publically subsidized conservative). You say; I 'd love to see someone like you on his show , the debate no matter what the subject. Many times I have seen him abandon facts and even logic and reason in a debate and resort to personal attacks. Examples that are well known are him calling Gore Vidal a "Pinko Faggot" in a debate, his justification of the Shanghai gesture by Henry Kissinger and his personal insults as an indication of his inability to debate Ayn Rand at all on philosophy principles and concepts. These days people are flocking to read "Atlas Shrugged." They are not exactlyburning a hole in their wallets to buy "God and Man at Yale." I would eat his lunch in any debate on military history, philosophy, economics, or a hard science as I have observed him too often jn debates resorting to name dropping, arbritray cute remarks, personal insults, and bloviating nonsense at a level of almost incoherent verbosity when it comes to applying objective epistemological criteria to a debated point.

      • Richard

        Yeah, well people are also burning a hole in their wallet to buy Sarah Palin's book..

    • Richard

      I entirely agree with you, badaboo….I am an American living in France for the past 30 years…several years ago there appeared a political cartoon here, with profiles of all the recent politicos standing miniscule in the shadow of a great figure with a large nose—De Gaulle. Since WFB's death, I have the same feeling…I mean, Rich Lowry? Rush Limbaugh? Anne Coulter? And to think that NR called Sarah Palin "one of us"…which was the exact moment that I decided not to renew my subscription to NR…

      When you think of Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and then compare it to this crowd—HELP!!!

      RL

  • badaboo

    Thats because you couldn't understand Buckley's sarcasms , it was over your head . You been watching too too much O'Reilly .

    • USMCSniper

      Some of Bill Oreilly is okay, but I see him as Bill "Ted Baxter" Oreilly with his tongue in ass of Buraq Hussein Obama to gain favor of interview and appearance on The Factor by any means possibe. When he goes into his phony reverse elitism "I am just a simple guy" and makes statements like "I don't care whether it is legal or constitutional" about the BP $20 billion and more to come Obama slush fund shakedown, I just think Yep, Bill you really are a simple minded guy."

  • USMCSniper

    According to William F. Buckley's son Christopher, Buckley he was a self-absorbed ass, abandoning his son at his college graduation, walking out early and not returning because he was "bored." Also. according to his son, William F. Buckley routinely relieved himself in public outside car doors while the cars were moving. The younger Buckley´s portrait is of a father willing to take liberties with the truth, including in biographies. By the way This same son of the late conservative thinker William F. Buckley endorsed and voted for Barack Obama, though he still considers himself a conservative. Duhhhhhh????

  • badaboo

    Sounds like a son with an ax to grind on good ole' Dad . Don't know anything about his kid , but one had to know Buckley , that is to have listened to him for some tiime to even understand his humor , it was flat out, the dryist sarcasm ever , To a non listener one might take exception , not knowing if he was insulting someone or not ,and that went for those he was debating also , but that was his unique style . Politically ,The only one who comes even close to that type of Conservatism on the present political scene is [and its a sretch ] is Romney . This editorial on Buckley is accurate , but if it is alluding to a comparison with anyone on the scene at present ? No way .

  • A. Ray

    Buckley is without doubt a conservative, as well as Limbaugh. Limbaugh expresses himself in the everyday language that many people can understand without a dictionary. This is his appeal. Buckley having the education many people can only dream of expressed himself accordingly. Having an intellectual on the conservative side helps in the debates against liberal/progressive intellectuals. But everyday politics isn't won on intellectual grounds,it's won in everyday language without benefit of the dictionary. Enough of the "I knew him before you did" posturing.

    • Richard

      Sorry, Limbaugh is a foul-mouthed jerk, Buckley was a conservative.

  • shadroui

    as i reviewed Christopher Buckley's book, I do have to correct a few claims made by the Buckley critics: 1) his relieving himself was a situation brought on by health issues, though as a former sailor I suppose Bill might have developed the habit of using the ocean and this leads, I speak from Boy Scout experience, to a certain cavalier notion toward the issue; Christopher whines about his dad, and his occasional inexplicable actions, which becomes a bit tiring after a while, but there is great respect and appreciation there as well — that should be noted: I don't recall any issue related to his intentionally distorting the truth — guess I will have to take a run at it. As for the Ayn Rand comment, please….Ayn Rand was a petulant, self absorbed and selfish person — however brilliant in other ways. And Atlas Shrugged his interesting for about 300 of its massive 1000 pages. After that, it becomes shrill as polemics and stale as fiction. Having read and watched Buckley carefully for many years, I would say that he is not only unique — he is probably irreplaceable.