William F. Buckley died this week. I never met him, but had reason to dislike him. Much of my career at the bar has been spent representing “little people” against big corporations in front of Republican judges who wouldn’t have been on the bench had it not been for Buckley’s success at cohering and modernizing conservatism in the United States. Without those conservative Republican judges looking down their noses at my clients, without them devising new ingenious ways to deny jury trials to American citizens, I would have made a lot more money. Perhaps I could even have hired my own cook and converted to Republicanism.
But how could I stay mad at a man who when asked what he would do if he actually won his race for mayor of New York City responded, “Demand a recount.” Or, when he found Dwight Eisenhower insufficiently conservative in 1956, nonetheless endorsed him in his magazine with the words, “We prefer Ike.” Or, in one of his Blackford Oakes spy novels — every one of which I read and enjoyed — has a fictional KGB agent refer to William F. Buckley as a “young bourgeois fanatic.” Or hired a young David Brooks after Brooks skewered him in his college newspaper. (Do not miss Mr. Brooks column in today’s New York Times. Some conservatives have highly developed senses of humor.) Or a man who, when asked how his life might have been different if he had been born a woman, thought for a minute and responded, “I would have seduced John Kenneth Galbraith [liberal economist and Buckley friend] and saved the world a lot of misery.” Or had a perpetual look of mischief about him, inducing David Remnick to write of him, “He has the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”
Or who so obviously enjoyed living.
In all the encomiums he received this week, people all across the political spectrum agree that he made the current conservative ascendancy possible. He is given much credit for making the presidency of Ronald Reagan possible. His acolytes are all over the place, declaiming about the proper uses of power and using it. To my chagrin, they have seized control of the federal judiciary and are unlikely to relinquish it for a generation.
Had Buckley been born poor, it is less likely his great intellect would have led him to conservatism: Intellect follows calories. But he was born to great wealth accumulated by his father in the Venezuelan oil fields. He was once asked in an interview if his wealth and privilege cut him off from the common man. He denied it because, he said, he read. His response was — paraphrased — “One did not experience personally the Roman Empire, but one knows of it from reading about it.” But he did not live like the rest of us. He had yachts, a villa in Gstaad and cooks, among other advantages and comforts of wealth. His inability to fathom that modern corporate conservatism hindered the lives of others was a blind spot as were Joseph McCarthy and segregation.
But he was right about much. Taking his yacht into international waters off the East Coast of the United States so it would be legal; he experimented with marijuana and concluded that the War on Drugs was silly and lost. Watching the mismanagement of the war in Iraq, he concluded it was a mistake to have started it. His analysis of communism was precise, correct and percipient.
His conservatism was not of the wrathful variety. Hugh Kenner, one of the many conservative writers from the National Review gave him credit for creating respectable conservatism by driving away the John Birchers, the anti-Semites and other kooks. That the angry kooks have snuck back into the movement probably caused Mr. Buckley discomfort as did grandiose neo-conservativism.
He was a sesquipedalian, sometimes pleonastic writer and talker, a
roborative involucrum for conservatives, a vaticinating troublous thorn for liberals and a happy warrior.
UPDATE: March 1, 2008
Today’s Washington Post has an article about someone from the other side of the political spectrum, Maury Maverick, Jr. on what it takes to be a political maverick. You can read the article here. Maverick did not have the blind spot about Joseph McCarthy that Mr. Buckley did. When his colleagues in the Texas state legislature drafted a resolution inviting McCarthy to come deliver a speech to them, Maverick introduced another one, inviting Mickey Mouse saying, “If we are going to invite a rat, why not a good rat?” John F. Kennedy stopped by the Alamo when he was campaigning for the presidency in 1960. Running late to his next campaign stop, Kennedy asked Maverick if they could slip out the back door. Maverick responded, “Senator, there is no back door. That’s why they were all heroes.”
I wonder if Maverick and Buckley knew one another? I expect they would have appreciated each other’s sense of humor if not political views.
A reader reminds me of his favorite Buckley quote. When asked, “Why do we always see you sitting down during interviews,” Buckley licked his lips and said, “It is difficult to stand with the weight of all I know.”