William F. Buckley passed on last month, and the flurry of obituaries and tributes have filled countless printed pages and websites. Some have resisted writing about Buckley, quite simply because of still being in a bit of a state of disbelief. We knew he was failing. But as with the death of Ronald Reagan, there was the sense that when Buckley died, he took a part of an era with him. As Peggy Noonan put it, it is hard to imagine a world without Buckley in it.
Perhaps it is fitting that this tribute to William F. Buckley is written on a Sunday afternoon, since it was on a Sunday afternoon 30 years ago when a young Montana Headlines was flipping through the two or three television channels available in a certain corner of the rural west and came across the unmistakable sounds of Bach's 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, marked by that scintillating trumpet solo in the 3rd movement.
Devotees of course know that what this youngster had discovered was the opening credits of Firing Line, that magnificent piece of work that is second only to National Review itself in WFB's extensive intellectual and political legacy.
For those who never had the chance to watch that program when Buckley was at the height of his powers in the 1970’s and 80’s, it is difficult to describe the effect that it had. Think real debate, but with a pace and dignity similar to Charlie Rose (who WFB befriended over the years and who put together a magnificent tribute to WFB on a recent program,) and with a host who is as learned and penetrating in intelligence as the experts and leaders being debated and interviewed. And think of a spring of cool, clear, conservative water bubbling up in what was, for us, a wasteland of television news and opinion that was tepid at best and blatantly skewed toward the left at worst. The roughly 1500 episodes of Firing Line carried on Public television over the course of 33 years were perhaps, by themselves, a body of work capable of making up for the left-leaning nature of much of its broadcasting.
Over the next 20 years, until WFB brought the program to a graceful close, many quiet Sunday afternoons included an hour (in later years, a half-hour) spent in the company of this fascinating and fearless man. He never hesitated to host guests who were more brilliant than he – in fact he seemed to thrive on it.
Much has been written about the respect with which Buckley treated his ideological opponents. Much of it is absolutely true, but a fair amount of the praise heaped on him by the left since his demise reflects at least in part a sentiment that the only good conservative is a dead conservative.
Buckley respected his sparring partners, certainly he respected them enough to skewer their ideas – frequently with cutting wit and that impish and infectiously condescending grin – when he thought they were wrong and saw a rhetorical weakness to be exploited. And he famously told Gore Vidal on national television, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I will sock you in your goddamn face, and you will stay plastered." It was likely not an idle threat.
What even more distinguished Buckley was that he understood that true friendship was possible with one’s political opposites. This, too, is not all that unusual in and of itself – we all know about political “friendships” which amount to cynically keeping one’s options open – or which indicate that the parties involved don’t really believe in the truth of the ideas held by their respective political camps, but rather use them as convenient tools for achieving power.
Buckley was different. He was a true traditionalist, in that he understood that what is human trumps what is political. His many friendships with liberals were based on the fact that he saw and valued their many qualities as decent and interesting human beings. He once said that "99 out of 100 men are interesting… and that hundredth man is interesting because he’s the exception." He truly believed in the causes he championed – free enterprise, individual liberty within the boundaries of traditional morality and our Anglo-American legal/constitutional tradition, limited government, and so forth. But those convictions never kept him from seeing the human worth of those individuals who disagreed with those principles or who were indifferent to them.
Buckley was aided in his style by not, for the most part, getting involved in the nitty-gritty of partisan politics. His one run for public office was for the mayor of New York City – he was deadly serious about the issues he raised in that campaign, but was in the race purely for the fun of it. When asked what he would do if he won the election, he famously replied: “I’ll demand a recount.” No-one had ever seen the like in New York, but he gained a loyal following, probably sowing the seeds for the successes of Mayor Rudy Giuliani decades later.
Over the years, Buckley’s column was usually available in local newspapers, and they were of course always able to be read in that week’s issue of National Review, when one could afford to subscribe for a year or had access to a library with a subscription.
Buckley was perhaps not the most rigorous and persuasive columnist in the conservative lineup that he in no small part inspired and created. He had a tendency to ramble in his argumentation and sometimes even to become so obscure in his references as to leave the reader wondering exactly what on earth he had actually meant to say. When, in reading his autobiographical works, it is learned that many columns were pounded out on a typewriter bolted to a desk in the back of his limo, some of that lack of tightness in his prose was explained. Buckley couldn’t stand wasting even a few minutes, and worked constantly while on the move – something we take for granted in the age of laptops and Blackberries, but which was highly unusual at the time. The limo, the yachts, his social life -- all were a part of a larger-than-life persona. If he didn't create that persona, he certainly did nothing to mute his inimitable personality.
But it was more than just being a man on the move -- anyone who had seen Buckley on Firing line, legs crossed, clipboard on his lap, lounging with a sort of feline air of self-confidence – leaning back in his swivel chair, tongue flicking across his lips as he pondered a point… well, seeing Buckley in action one understood that he reveled in the ideas of the moment and the debate of the hour. His columns reflected that, and had an almost stream-of-consciousness feel to them that never seemed entirely safe to many stodgy conservatives.
What a consciousness it was, though! And it was precisely that sense of danger – danger that a debating point might be lost (and Buckley lost many,) and danger that he was taking conservatives someplace they might not want to go, that made encounters with him so exhilarating. Few could resist going along with him – and that is the mark of a great leader.