Monday, March 10, 2008

A friend is gone: WFB, RIP -- Part 2 of 4

(Part I)

Part II:

It would be hard to dispute that Buckley was the leader of the conservative movement in a way that no-one else could claim to be. While political figures in the movement came and went, Buckley was its only real leader in the all-important war of ideas for more than 4 decades, starting in the 1950's.

David Brooks recently wrote about Buckley’s talent for leadership:

As a young man, he had corralled the famously disputatious band of elders who made up the editorial board of National Review. He changed the personality of modern conservatism, created a national movement and expelled the crackpots from it.

He led through charisma and merit. He was capable of intellectual pyrotechnics none of us could match. But he also exemplified a delicious way of living.

Magazines are aspirational. National Review’s readers no doubt shared a hatred for Communism, but many of them simply wanted to be like Buckley. He had a Tory gratitude for the pleasures of life: for music, conversation, technology and adventure.

Of all the things that have been written recently about Buckley recently, that last paragraph speaks a truth that is profound in its directness and simple honesty: a whole lot of us just wanted to be like him. Not merely in his political ideas, or in his rhetorical genius, or in his easy self-confidence: most of all, we admired his manifest love for the life well lived. Conservatives know that the life well lived is the only legitimate reason for our political struggles – most of us would prefer not to be immersed in politics, but would rather prefer to tend to the joys of work, family, church, and intellectual and physical pursuits.

Conservative political thought is built around the understanding that government can provide a shield of protection for those things, or it can destroy them. But government can never create them, and as such, politics and involvement in government cannot be a good in and of itself. Buckley was a quintessential conservative in that regard.

Of all of Buckley’s books that I have read, it is thus perhaps no surprise that the ones that have remained most memorable were two sailing books. Perhaps it was because I was deployed overseas when I read them, but more likely it is because of the way they expressed the essence of what Buckley was fighting for. Both Airborne and Atlantic High are about sailing across the Atlantic. The reader is alone with Buckley, his thoughts, and a few close friends who served as crew members (was Buckley ever not with friends, ever not demonstrating what it means to be a friend?) In the course of the voyages, Buckley meanders through lessons in (pre-GPS) navigation, explains how to pick and oversee a sailing crew, remembers other days at sea, recalls anecdotes about his life of letters and lectures, and spends countless hours answering the bags-full of correspondence from readers that has built up over time.

Ever a stickler for protocol and manners, Buckley for the longest time insisted on maintaining the now-antique civility of sending a hand-written reply to every piece of mail he received. (It probably didn't hurt his repeat book sales, either, given that most of his mail was from his readers.)

He also had a column called “Notes and Asides” in National Review each week, in which a privileged (or unlucky, depending on Buckley’s mood) reader or two would have the chance to match wits with the great editor, having their letters published and responded to.

Few dedicated readers could resist. I, in youthful confidence, once fired off what I thought at the time to be a clever critique of a word that Buckley had (in my opinion) misused. Close to a year later, a postcard arrived, with a pre-printed message saying that since Mr. Buckley couldn’t keep up with all of his correspondence anymore, his sister Priscilla was helping him. Her two-line handwritten response to the brief letter was warm and to the point, giving the assurance that the word in question would be used by Bill with more precision in the future.

I never wrote another letter to him, not liking the idea of being a bother -- and my comment didn't seem all that clever in retrospect. Better to read, observe, learn – and use any rhetorical flourishes and ripostes, such as they might be, with my own friends and acquaintances.

Getting back to etiquette, these things were very important to Buckley, and while he sometimes could come across as officious when touching on points of good manners, one usually came away from the discussion or aside with an appreciation for just why a particular point of etiquette existed in the first place, and why it was perhaps worth preserving.

One example that particularly springs to mind was a time when Buckley was interviewing the late Rev. Jerry Falwell on Firing Line. Falwell was, at that time, at the height of his influence and fame, and he was feeling his oats. At one point he began to refer repeatedly and deridingly to “Teddy Kennedy” – that all-purpose liberal bogeyman.

Buckley then mercilessly began to quiz Falwell on how long he had been friends with Sen. Kennedy, or whether he had even met Mr. Kennedy. I knew enough about etiquette to know exactly the point that Buckley was making with Falwell, but the good Reverend had no idea what Buckley was talking about, and attempted to bluster on. Buckley finally spelled it out, saying that he had assumed that since the Rev. Falwell was referring to Sen. Kennedy by his first name – and by a diminutive, no less – surely Falwell was on intimate terms with Kennedy. Falwell admitted that he had never even met Kennedy, but still was a bit befuddled regarding the turn that the conversation was taking. Many viewers got the message, though, and that was doubtless Buckley’s intention all along.

The opinions that Falwell was expressing were ones with which Buckley actually agreed – but that agreement wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of respectful social graces that were, for Buckley, the lubrication that kept the gears in the machinery of civil debate running smoothly.

Another episode is, as I recall, from Airborne. As an aside, the reason for not being sure is that upon Buckley’s death, I was surprised to go through my bookshelves and learn that I only had one of his books in my library – even though I have read at least 12 – 15. I realized that I had read them all during the long years of being unable to afford to buy many books, and had rather borrowed them all from public libraries.

The memorable episode concerned Buckley’s internal struggles on his first time as a captain crossing the Atlantic, when he realized that Sunday was upon them. A devout Catholic, he felt there should be some sort of shipboard church service to mark the day – and that as captain it was his responsibility.

But there was a problem – a couple of the crew members on the yacht were there as paid sailors. If he had services and only invited the crewmembers who were his friends and guests, that would violate the principle that all are equal before God. But to invite them – his employees – would put those employees into a situation where they might not feel free to refuse if they didn’t want to participate. Buckley ended up doing nothing, and prayed by himself in private.

He never did feel right about not having services of some sort – but on the other hand, in the process of the discussion, he taught readers a lesson in the responsibilities of being a sensitive employer who understands where his influence over employees should properly end.

It was the sort of thing that Buckley was forever teaching us. Whether simple things like noticing that a newspaper publisher had brought Buckley a drink but neglected to bring one to the poor cub reporter interviewing him at the publisher’s house, or attending to the more advanced points of noblesse oblige, one wonders who, really, is even interested in filling that role in the conservative world today – let alone able to pull it off.

(Part III)

(Part IV)

No comments: