Commentary Magazine


Topic: William F. Buckley

Faith and Doubt

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Julia Baird praising Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, for telling an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there are moments in which he asks, “Is there a God? Where is God?”

Read More

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Julia Baird praising Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, for telling an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there are moments in which he asks, “Is there a God? Where is God?”

When pressed if he harbored doubt, Welby answered, “It is a really good question…. The other day I was praying over something as I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

I’m not so sure. Many people I know, including some very gifted ministers, have struggled with such doubts. So did C.S. Lewis, the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century. (The doubts came in the immediate aftermath of the death of his wife Joy Davidman.) And one of the formative figures in my own Christian pilgrimage, Malcolm Muggeridge, told William F. Buckley, Jr., “I rather believe in doubt. It’s sometimes thought that it’s the antithesis of faith, but I think it’s connected with faith – something that actually St. Augustine said – like, you know, reinforced concrete and you have those strips of metal in the concrete which make it stronger.”

“The only people I’ve met in this world who never doubt are materialists and atheists,” Muggeridge added. “But for me, at any rate, doubt has been an integral part of coming to faith.” That is certainly the case for me, which might explain, in part, my early affinity for Muggeridge. The journey to faith was not a neat and tidy affair for me.

The author Philip Yancey points out that the Bible includes many examples of doubt. In some cases, like Job, God honors doubt. And for Christians, of course, there are the words uttered by Jesus on the Cross: “My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me?”

“Evidently God has more tolerance of doubt than most churches,” Yancey writes. He adds that artificially suppressing doubts, you don’t really resolve them. They tend to resurface in a more toxic form.

Here it’s worth inserting a caveat. In our post-modern culture, it’s often fashionable to celebrate doubt, to declare oneself always a seeker and never a finder. Yet there are plenty of people who serve God with faithfulness and joy, who never find themselves struggling with existential and intellectual doubts and spiritual uncertainty. For them faith has always come easily. There’s no reason such people should be viewed in a less flattering light.

It’s important to recognize that faith isn’t a synonym for reason, even though it’s not intrinsically at odds with it. (Pascal said the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.) Faith doesn’t rest on logical proofs or material evidence. If it did, there wouldn’t be (as there is) an element of trust involved in it. God’s existence can’t be proved, and wasn’t intended to be understood, like a mathematical equation. It’s the nature of faith, then, to leave room for doubt. And faith itself, a friend recently reminded me, involves a relationship, and there is mystery in any profound relationship.

In the end, however, the cornerstone of faith isn’t doubt. It rests on hope, on believing in an unseen reality, and on what C.S. Lewis called “true myth” (by which he meant ancient pagan myths revealed the natural human longing for a true God). On creation bearing witness to a Creator. On being filled with awe by the starry heavens above us and the moral law within us. And on the materialist explanations of life not being able to explain the most important things about life.

It rests on the belief that we’re part of an unfolding story, a drama, that God is the author of and has entered into. And that when the story is finally written, broken areas of our lives will be repaired and redeemed; that all things will be made right; and that grace will bring us home.

 

Read Less

In Defense of Social Justice

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

Read More

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin reminded me of Irving Kristol’s rejection of Hayek’s denial of the idea of social justice in his 1970 essay “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness.” Kristol pointed out that Hayek, for whom Kristol had great respect, preferred a free society to a just society “because, [Hayek] says, while we know what freedom is, we have no generally accepted knowledge of what justice is.”

“Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society?” Kristol asked. “I do not think so. My reading of history is that, in the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.”

Kristol praised American society when it was

still permeated by the Puritan ethic, the Protestant ethic, the capitalist ethic – call it what you will. It was a society in which it was agreed that there was a strong correlation between certain personal virtues – frugality, industry, sobriety, reliability, piety – and the way in which power, privilege, and property were distributed. And this correlation was taken to be the sign of a just society, not merely of a free one. 

So denying the possibility of a common idea of justice is not one I’m prepared to accept. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament don’t seem to accept it, either. In his book Generous Justice, Timothy J. Keller writes that the words “social justice” appear more than three dozen times in the Bible. (Dr. Keller argues that “social justice” is the best English expression we have for the relevant Hebrew words. The most accurate translated text for Psalm 33:5, for example, would be, “The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.”)

Whether or not one finds this persuasive, social injustice exists; so, I would argue, does the concept of social justice–and any society that fails to dispense some measure of sympathy and solicitude to others, particularly those living in the shadows and who are most vulnerable to injustice, cannot really be a good society. A decent civilization needs to have something to say to them. So should the conservative movement. Which brings me back to the essay by Arthur Brooks.

“The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people, whether or not they vote as we do,” Brooks writes. “This is our fight, and it is a happy one. After all, as Proverbs 14:21 reminds us, ‘He that despiseth his neighbor, sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he’.”

Whether this effort travels under the banner of social justice or some other name, to do justice and to love mercy is what is required of us, as individuals and as a society. Or so it seems to me.

Read Less

The War on Rational Conservatism

What exactly are conservatives arguing about these days? After listening to the latest speeches of Senator Ted Cruz denouncing his critics and reading Erick Erickson’s latest piece at Red State in which he angrily denounces the editors of National Review as “well fed” and complacent enablers of liberalism, I think those who are not already clued in to the subtext of the dispute would be forgiven for being puzzled about what it was all about. Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement. Those on the right have grown used to seeing liberal mainstream publications and broadcast outlets doing stories about conservatives tearing themselves apart that are motivated more by a desire to fuel the dispute than any objective proof of a significant split. But in this case, it’s hard to avoid the impression that what we are witnessing is actually nothing less than a full-blown civil war among conservatives that may have profound implications for the outcome of both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

At the heart of this is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of the government shutdown that resulted from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives following Cruz’s advice about tying the continuing resolution funding the government to a proposal to defund ObamaCare. As many sober conservatives predicted, the strategy failed. It accomplished nothing other than to damage the Republican Party in the eyes of most of the nation, although it did burnish Cruz’s reputation among those on the right who think the GOP is an assembly of sellouts because they failed to accomplish the impossible. In response to calls from those who were correct about this for a reassessment, Cruz and his followers have begun a campaign whose purpose seems to be to trash all those who had doubts about the senator’s misguided tactic and to damn them as not merely faint-hearts but traitors to the cause of conservatism. That this is arrant nonsense almost goes without saying. But the longer this goes on and the nastier it gets, the more convinced I’m becoming that far from a meaningless spat that will soon be forgotten, the shutdown may become the impetus for a genuine split within conservative ranks that will fester and diminish the chances that liberals will be prevented from retaining their grip on power in Washington.

Read More

What exactly are conservatives arguing about these days? After listening to the latest speeches of Senator Ted Cruz denouncing his critics and reading Erick Erickson’s latest piece at Red State in which he angrily denounces the editors of National Review as “well fed” and complacent enablers of liberalism, I think those who are not already clued in to the subtext of the dispute would be forgiven for being puzzled about what it was all about. Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement. Those on the right have grown used to seeing liberal mainstream publications and broadcast outlets doing stories about conservatives tearing themselves apart that are motivated more by a desire to fuel the dispute than any objective proof of a significant split. But in this case, it’s hard to avoid the impression that what we are witnessing is actually nothing less than a full-blown civil war among conservatives that may have profound implications for the outcome of both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

At the heart of this is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of the government shutdown that resulted from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives following Cruz’s advice about tying the continuing resolution funding the government to a proposal to defund ObamaCare. As many sober conservatives predicted, the strategy failed. It accomplished nothing other than to damage the Republican Party in the eyes of most of the nation, although it did burnish Cruz’s reputation among those on the right who think the GOP is an assembly of sellouts because they failed to accomplish the impossible. In response to calls from those who were correct about this for a reassessment, Cruz and his followers have begun a campaign whose purpose seems to be to trash all those who had doubts about the senator’s misguided tactic and to damn them as not merely faint-hearts but traitors to the cause of conservatism. That this is arrant nonsense almost goes without saying. But the longer this goes on and the nastier it gets, the more convinced I’m becoming that far from a meaningless spat that will soon be forgotten, the shutdown may become the impetus for a genuine split within conservative ranks that will fester and diminish the chances that liberals will be prevented from retaining their grip on power in Washington.

I think Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru were on to something when they wrote in their National Review essay that sent Erickson over the edge that the problem behind the angst on the right is despair. I touched on the same theme in an essay in the Intercollegiate Review published last month as part of its symposium on what’s the matter with conservatism, as well as in a blog post published here titled “Tea Party Despair and ObamaCare.” Frustrated by the Supreme Court’s illogical decision that affirmed ObamaCare’s constitutionality and by the results of the 2012 election, many conservatives have more or less given up on conventional politics. Right now all they are interested in is a fight, no matter how quixotic. And anyone who won’t charge over the cliff with them strikes such people as something far worse than a political foe.

In response, Erickson and others who have written about this topic ground their attacks on the so-called Republican “establishment” as being analogous to the situation in the 1950s when William F. Buckley founded the modern conservative movement as part of a protest against the way Republicans had become enablers of the Democrats’ liberal agenda. Regardless of the political facts of the day, they say the only rational response of conservatives to the situation is to take a principled stand much like Buckley’s famous declaration that the purpose of National Review was to “stand athwart history” and to yell “stop.” Those who won’t do that are no better than the Republicans who opposed Buckley. Even more important, they say that those who are more concerned with Republicans winning elections even at the cost of their souls than standing up for principle really are RINOs and traitors no matter what their positions on the issues might be.

But it bears repeating there is a big difference between the state of the Republican Party when Buckley was first yelling “stop” and today.

Buckley and his allies were justified in trying to radically change the nature of the GOP because many of its leaders weren’t “timid” conservatives who were afraid of challenging the legitimacy of liberal government. Nelson Rockefeller and much of the GOP establishment of that time really were liberals and were not shy about saying so. Buckley had no interest in electing more liberals even if they called themselves Republicans, but he also famously said conservatives should always back the most electable conservative, not the most right-wing candidate.

The battle that was waged over the soul of the GOP over the next quarter century after NR’s founding was fierce because there were real ideological differences at stake. By contrast, Cruz and Erickson’s targets are not merely fellow conservatives but among the most conservative individuals and outlets in the country. Their sin is not the genuine dispute about the virtue of the welfare state and big government that drove the internal arguments in the Republican Party in that era, but rather one of attitudes. The editors of NR as well as hard-core conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are not blasted for their beliefs as Nelson Rockefeller and Co. were but because they differ with Cruz on tactics.

What we are seeing here is nothing less than a call for a Leninist-style schism on the right in which NR and McConnell are treated as the Mensheviks to the Tea Party’s Bolsheviks. Anyone who won’t hue to the Cruz party line isn’t merely wrong but, as Erickson’s piece seems to indicate, worthy of being read out of the conservative movement and denounced as betrayers.

This makes sense only if you are of the mindset that anyone not willing to shut down the government is indistinguishable from Barack Obama no matter how conservative they might be. As such, what we are witnessing is not an attempt to convert the Republican Party into a gathering of conservatives—something a previous generation of conservatives accomplished under the leadership of Ronald Reagan—but a war on rational conservatism whose only end is the immolation of the movement the Gipper helped build.

What does this portend?

It’s too soon to know for sure, but right now I’m starting to think that those inclined to pooh-pooh the chances for a genuine split are wrong. If that portion of the conservative base listens to Cruz and Erickson they are going to spend much of the next year trying to exact revenge on the senator’s critics. And if that means helping to knock off genuine conservatives like McConnell who will almost certainly be replaced in the Senate not by more Cruz clones but by liberal Democrats, they think it’s no great loss because such people are more interested in purifying the GOP than in beating the Democrats. Assembling a national coalition that could enable conservatives to govern is a matter of complete indifference to them and they seem openly contemptuous of the necessity of gaining Republican majorities and a Republican president in order to advance the conservative agenda.

This drama will be played out in many states next year in the midterm elections, but it will come to a head in 2016 when a single formidable moderate conservative may possibly be opposed by a split field of right-wingers in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. If so, those today yelling about the betrayal of Cruz are likely to be louder and even more self-destructive. A few more years in which Tea Partiers stop seeing themselves as the vanguard of the conservative movement but as members of a different political alignment altogether could lead to exactly the kind of right-wing walkout from the GOP that was threatened in 2008 and 2012 but never actually materialized. If so, we may look back on the aftermath of the shutdown as not just a foolish argument started by frustrated conservatives but the beginning of a schism that enabled the Democrats to consolidate their hold on power in Washington for the foreseeable future.

Read Less

Margaret [Thatcher], Bill [Buckley], and Ron [Reagan]

In a graceful 1975 column titled “Just Call Me Bill,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about his correspondence with Margaret Thatcher after she appeared on his TV show as the new leader of the Conservative Party. Buckley always referred to others as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on television, even if he knew them well, but after Mrs. Thatcher called him “Bill” at one point during the interview, he felt he could write her a “Dear Margaret” letter. She responded with a “Dear Mr. Buckley” letter, and on checking the transcript of the interview, he was shocked to discover that on the show she had been referring to a piece of legislation, not his first name.

At the beginning of this year, Thatcher’s papers from 1982 were released, under the 30-year rule that governs such releases. Included in them is a secret personal message she sent to President Reagan on May 5, 1982, in the midst of the Falklands war. She had just completed a four-hour meeting with her cabinet to discuss U.S. proposals for a negotiated settlement, and she wrote to Reagan privately “because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am trying to say.” Her message continued as follows:

Read More

In a graceful 1975 column titled “Just Call Me Bill,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote about his correspondence with Margaret Thatcher after she appeared on his TV show as the new leader of the Conservative Party. Buckley always referred to others as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on television, even if he knew them well, but after Mrs. Thatcher called him “Bill” at one point during the interview, he felt he could write her a “Dear Margaret” letter. She responded with a “Dear Mr. Buckley” letter, and on checking the transcript of the interview, he was shocked to discover that on the show she had been referring to a piece of legislation, not his first name.

At the beginning of this year, Thatcher’s papers from 1982 were released, under the 30-year rule that governs such releases. Included in them is a secret personal message she sent to President Reagan on May 5, 1982, in the midst of the Falklands war. She had just completed a four-hour meeting with her cabinet to discuss U.S. proposals for a negotiated settlement, and she wrote to Reagan privately “because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am trying to say.” Her message continued as follows:

Throughout my administration I have tried to stay loyal to the United States as our great ally and to the principles of democracy, liberty and justice for which both of our countries stand.

In your message you say that your suggestions are faithful to the basic principles we must protect. But the present rulers of the Argentine will not respect those principles, and I fear deeply that if a settlement based on your suggestions is eventually achieved, we shall find that in the process of negotiation democracy and freedom for the Falkland Islanders will have been compromised.

Above all, the present proposals do not provide unambiguously for a right to self-determination, although it is fundamental to democracy and was enjoyed by the Islanders up to the moment of invasion …

I also believe that the friendship between the United States and Britain matters very much to the future of the free world. That is why, with the changes Francis Pym has suggested to Al Haig, we are ready, with whatever misgivings, to go along with your latest proposals. Assuming that they are accepted by the Argentines, then during the negotiation period that will follow we shall have to fight fiercely for the rights of the Falklanders who have been so loyal to everything in which you and we believe.

The Argentinians rejected the terms for negotiation the next day, so the U.S. proposal never became a reality. The historical significance of Thatcher’s message to Reagan relates less to the Falklands crisis itself than to the personal relationship she and Reagan had established by the second year of his presidency. The May 5, 1982 secret message was addressed to “Ron,” and it was signed simply, “Margaret.”

Read Less

What Would Bill Buckley Do?

The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.

That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.

Read More

The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.

That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.

Scarborough quotes, as I have myself at times, the famous WFB dictum that conservatives must be, above all, realistic. As he often pointed out, the person to support in an election was the most conservative candidate who could win. That means when faced, as Delaware Republicans were in 2010, with a choice of a moderate in Representative Mike Castle who was a shoe-in to win a Senate seat and a wacky Tea Party outlier like Christine O’Donnell, conservatives should have backed Castle since adding another vote to the Republican caucus, even one that was not reliably conservative, was better than electing another liberal Democrat.

Were Scarborough to stick with a critique of primary voters who prefer pure conservatives to more electable and slightly more moderate GOP veterans he’d be on firm ground. But, as anyone who has heard his daily rants on MSNBC knows, he doesn’t stop there. His complaint is not so much with people like O’Donnell, Todd Akin or Sharon Angle as it is with the contemporary conservative movement. The problem with applying Buckley’s lesson to contemporary politics is that it can be misinterpreted to mean that the party must make a philosophical choice to move to the center in order to be more acceptable to the chattering classes among whom Scarborough lives and works these days. And that is exactly the sort of thing WFB couldn’t tolerate.

What Scarborough forgets to mention is that one of the major political projects of Buckley’s career was the creation of the Conservative Party in New York state. The Conservatives were in their days very much the moral equivalent of the Tea Party in that the driving force behind them was the anger that Buckley and others who agreed with him felt about Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and other moderate and liberal New York Republicans who ran the party in that state. Rockefeller and Javits were exactly the sort of people that Scarborough and Colin Powell seem to be telling the GOP to nominate. But Buckley felt that a party whose leaders were hostile to conservative principles of good governance was not worthy of support. So he backed a splinter party whose purpose was not to elect moderates but to champion conservative ideas that Republicans had abandoned.

In the short term, that didn’t help the GOP win elections in New York. But it did help transform the party into one that was willing to speak up on behalf of the ideas that Buckley believed in. The Conservatives in New York were the forerunners of the revolution that transformed the GOP from a collection of office seekers willing to stand for the Democratic Platform minus five or 10 percent into the Republican Party that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and elected a Republican Congress in 1994.

Scarborough wants the GOP to reach out to moderates in order to win in the future. That is a reasonable suggestion, but when he says Powell must be romanced back into the party what he is calling for is an abandonment of the principles of limited government, individual freedom and strength abroad that Reagan and Buckley stood for. That is a clear path to disaster and irrelevance.

Some, though not Scarborough, have made an analogy between the efforts Buckley made to chase the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement and those who would like to do the same to the Tea Party today. But there is no comparison between the two. The Tea Party may have its share of marginal figures, but it stands for conservative principles. The Birchers were anti-Semites and outside the mainstream. As the Tea Party proved in 2010, they were a grass-roots movement that represented the views of many in the GOP base.

What Buckley taught Republicans in the 1950s when he created NR and sought to stand athwart history and say no to the advance of liberalism is that there are sometimes more important things than winning elections. The future of conservatism and the country hinges on beating the Democrats in 2014 and 2016. But returning the party to the likes of a Rockefeller or his ideological godchildren that claim to want to save the GOP from itself will not do it. If Republicans are to return to the winners’ circle it will only be as conservatives, not the sort of people who hawk the conventional wisdom of the day on MSNBC.

Read Less

Obama’s “Throw Rocks at It” Approach to Capitol Hill

Today is Richard Nixon’s centennial, which will draw attention to relevant aspects of Nixon’s life and legacy besides Watergate. Nixon’s grasp of American politics was unusually sharp, and a Politico story today about President Obama’s striking disinterest in negotiating with Republicans calls to mind a piece of advice Nixon once gave to Ronald Reagan through William F. Buckley.

Despite the claims that Obama is “the Democrats’ Reagan,” Obama lacks Reagan’s best qualities, especially his temperament. Nixon and Buckley were having lunch when Nixon made a suggestion for Reagan: the president’s admirable affability shouldn’t preclude having someone else be tough on the Democrats for him, enabling Reagan to stay above the fray. Here is how Buckley relayed the advice to Reagan (“RN” is Nixon; “RR” is Reagan):

Read More

Today is Richard Nixon’s centennial, which will draw attention to relevant aspects of Nixon’s life and legacy besides Watergate. Nixon’s grasp of American politics was unusually sharp, and a Politico story today about President Obama’s striking disinterest in negotiating with Republicans calls to mind a piece of advice Nixon once gave to Ronald Reagan through William F. Buckley.

Despite the claims that Obama is “the Democrats’ Reagan,” Obama lacks Reagan’s best qualities, especially his temperament. Nixon and Buckley were having lunch when Nixon made a suggestion for Reagan: the president’s admirable affability shouldn’t preclude having someone else be tough on the Democrats for him, enabling Reagan to stay above the fray. Here is how Buckley relayed the advice to Reagan (“RN” is Nixon; “RR” is Reagan):

“He needs an Agnew,” RN said. “He did it for me, and he was first-rate–check his ratings back then. I did it for Ike. Ike was smooth. But when I went all-out against the Dems, and they went to Ike, he’d sort of shrug his shoulders, but when he saw me, he’d say: ‘Attaboy, Dick. More of the same.’” What if [John] Connally wouldn’t? Well, RR would need to find somebody who would do it. The Dems are terrifically vulnerable, but there isn’t anybody out there in headline-country who’s skewering them with their own vulnerabilities. It’s got to be done.

Contrast that with how Obama approaches his political fights with the Republicans. A perfect example was Obama’s bizarre campaign-style event at which he taunted Republicans about the fiscal cliff deal before the deal was even done. Rather than use his vice president–Joe Biden can be as vicious as they come, and he’ll always get a pass from the media–to shove Republicans around, allowing Obama to stay above the fray and look presidential, Obama does this himself while tasking Biden with the actual work of governing. Here’s Politico:

His apparent conclusion, after watching the implosion of the House GOP’s effort to pass a modest tax increase before the final fiscal cliff deal, is that the best way to deal with the Capitol is to throw rocks at it — then send Vice President Joe Biden in to clean up the glass.

The result is that we only got a fiscal cliff deal, however imperfect, because Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reached out to Biden and the two put something together. Obama has always been uninterested in the details, which is why we had to pass the bill with his name on it–Obamacare–just to find out what’s in it. And as the New York Times has reported, Obama isn’t interested in building relationships with either party on Capitol Hill. With an air of entitlement, he dispenses demands and assumes someone will always be there to clean up the messes he makes in Washington.

That someone, these days, is Joe Biden. But the roles can’t be reversed so easily. The public looks to the president to set the tone of an administration, and what they’ve seen in Obama’s four years is mostly petty and vindictive behavior. And it’s only a matter of time before Biden reverts back to his old “put y’all back in chains” self. Reagan’s problem, according to Nixon, was that he didn’t have anybody “throwing rocks” at the other side. Obama’s problem is that he’s running out of people to clean up the glass.

Read Less

The GOP Doesn’t Need a Purge

It isn’t exactly a secret that the best if not the only way for a conservative or Republican to get published in the New York Times is to attack their own party (the same formula applies to Jews who know the surest path to a byline on the op-ed page is to condemn Israel). So it is hardly surprising that David Welch, a former Republican National Committee research director and campaign adviser to John McCain, got his moment in the sun today by echoing the newspaper’s liberal editorial line about the sheer awfulness of the Tea Party. Of course, Welch tried to write the piece from the perspective of a conservative, but in doing so he reverted to another standard from the liberal playbook: using dead conservatives to criticize the current ones.

To that end, Welch dragged William F. Buckley from his grave in order to cite the National Review editor’s purge of the John Birch Society from the conservative movement in the 1960s as a precedent that Republicans should now apply to the Tea Party. One can debate whether the Tea Partiers have too much influence in the GOP or whether some of the candidates they have foisted on the party were ill-advised choices, but Welch’s “Where Have You Gone, Bill Buckley?” couldn’t be more off target. The Tea Party has its cranks, but the notion that it is in any way comparable to a hate group like the Birchers isn’t merely a figment of the liberal imagination; it’s sheer slander. That he would make such an outrageous analogy says a lot more about the liberal agenda to brand most Republicans as extremists than it does about the smart way to oppose President Obama’s agenda.

Read More

It isn’t exactly a secret that the best if not the only way for a conservative or Republican to get published in the New York Times is to attack their own party (the same formula applies to Jews who know the surest path to a byline on the op-ed page is to condemn Israel). So it is hardly surprising that David Welch, a former Republican National Committee research director and campaign adviser to John McCain, got his moment in the sun today by echoing the newspaper’s liberal editorial line about the sheer awfulness of the Tea Party. Of course, Welch tried to write the piece from the perspective of a conservative, but in doing so he reverted to another standard from the liberal playbook: using dead conservatives to criticize the current ones.

To that end, Welch dragged William F. Buckley from his grave in order to cite the National Review editor’s purge of the John Birch Society from the conservative movement in the 1960s as a precedent that Republicans should now apply to the Tea Party. One can debate whether the Tea Partiers have too much influence in the GOP or whether some of the candidates they have foisted on the party were ill-advised choices, but Welch’s “Where Have You Gone, Bill Buckley?” couldn’t be more off target. The Tea Party has its cranks, but the notion that it is in any way comparable to a hate group like the Birchers isn’t merely a figment of the liberal imagination; it’s sheer slander. That he would make such an outrageous analogy says a lot more about the liberal agenda to brand most Republicans as extremists than it does about the smart way to oppose President Obama’s agenda.

Welch is right when he says Republicans would do well to keep Bill Buckley’s rule that they should support “the most right, viable candidate who could win.” Had they done so, the GOP caucus in the U.S. Senate would be a lot bigger these days since Tea Party insurgents like Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell turned likely Republican victories into Democratic triumphs. There is an argument to be made on behalf of what he calls “adult supervision” being applied to the party, especially when it comes to picking candidates.

I would also concede that although I take a dim view of those urging Republicans to cave in to President Obama’s demands on taxes, conservative ideology need not dictate every decision the House leadership makes as it negotiates a budget deal with the president to prevent the country heading over the fiscal cliff.

But these are tactical decisions, not questions about the nature of the party or the state of modern conservatism. That is why Welch’s cri de coeur on behalf of a revived Republican establishment and moderates like Chris Christie is not only wrong-headed, but an insidious attempt to further the efforts of liberals to smear all contemporary conservatives as extremists.

The John Birch Society that Buckley consigned to the margins from his bully pulpit at National Review had nothing in common with the Tea Party. The Birchers were a relatively small, though loud group percolating on the fever swamps of the body politic. They were dominated by racist and anti-Semitic elements and deeply immersed in conspiracy theories about Communist infiltration of every segment of American society. They were dangerous to conservatism not because they were numerous but because their presence in conservative ranks stood to compromise the entire movement. Buckley had little trouble routing them because they were genuine outliers with little support among Republican activists or voters.

By contrast, The Tea Party sprung up in 2009 and 2010 in response to President Obama’s stimulus boondoggle and the passage of ObamaCare. Despite liberal canards about it being the creation of rich Republican donors, it was a textbook example of a grassroots movement that grew up in spite of the wishes of many party leaders. Though, as is natural for any broad-based surge, its support has gone down since its 2010 heyday, it prospered because it spoke to the basic instincts of many Americans about the danger of out-of-control spending and taxing by the government. Far from espousing extreme ideology, its point of view was very much to the point about the concerns that the president’s unchecked liberalism in his first two years in office had provoked.

Democrats assumed that a Republican Party dominated by the Tea Party was dooming itself to defeat, but the election results of November 2010 proved them wrong. Though the willingness of some Tea Partiers to dump moderate Republicans cost the party some seats they could have won, the GOP’s landslide win that year would not have been possible without the fervor of the Tea Party and the fact that their beliefs resonated with a broad cross-section of voters including many who would never call themselves conservatives.

Though liberal newspapers like the Times have been working hard to brand the Tea Party as extremists, the idea that there is any link or even an analogy between a group focused on reducing the size of government and one steeped in hate like the Birchers is deeply offensive.

It is understandable that some would-be establishment Republicans such as Welch don’t like their party being held accountable for betrayal of conservative principles. And in some limited circumstances they may even be right to claim that Tea Partiers have exercised poor judgment in terms of the candidates they’ve imposed on the GOP as well as the policy decisions they would like to see implemented. But that has nothing to do with what Bill Buckley accomplished.

While one should hesitate to speak in the name of the deceased, I’m sure I’m not alone among conservatives in thinking WFB would have smelled a rat when reading Welch’s piece. Buckley sought to purge extremists from conservative ranks in order to preserve the movement’s principles. Welch wants to purge Tea Partiers specifically in order to dump conservative principles and replace them with the sort of watered-down liberalism that Buckley rightly despised. Buckley spent far more of his career seeking to oust the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the party from the GOP than he did the Birchers.

What the GOP needs today is for grassroots Tea Partiers and more establishment types to work together to build a coherent opposition to the liberal agenda that the president and the Times wish to foist on the country. Any Republican who wants to purge the Tea Party is merely doing the dirty work of those who want to destroy conservatism. Nothing could be more dishonorable or less in keeping with the legacy of Bill Buckley.

Read Less

Vidal, Buckley, and Anti-Semitism

Earlier this week, the chattering classes honored the passing of author Gore Vidal with the sort of praise due to a great figure of literature, including a front-page obituary in the New York Times. Yet even the Times had to admit he was more of a celebrity than a great writer. I’ll confess that I found some of his historical novels entertaining even though they are thinly disguised polemics and generally bad history. Interestingly, his play, “The Best Man,” seems to have some staying power even though it is something of a time capsule about the way presidential nominating conventions used to work but never will again. Perhaps it is because the two protagonists of the piece fit neatly into liberal pop-culture stereotypes about politicians with the play’s principled but weak-willed liberal facing off against a despicable, conspiracy-theorist of a conservative who is, of course, a closeted homosexual.

It is also notable that all the appreciations of Vidal never fail to mention his memorable face off with William F. Buckley when ABC employed the two as guest commentators during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The event, now widely celebrated as a sort of intellectual battle of the titans in a long past golden age of wit, was the conceit for a piece by Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus published yesterday. Though they were open in their contempt for each other, Tanenhaus believes Vidal and Buckley were two sides of the same elitist patrician coin. What’s more he sees the fact that both were supporters of the isolationist “America First” movement as a sign that they had more in common that they or most of their readers thought. But Tanenhaus misses the point about this commonality. Buckley’s youthful embrace of Charles Lindbergh did not prevent him from standing up against anti-Semitism during his career and being the man who almost single-handedly ran Jew-haters out of the modern conservative movement. By contrast, as Norman Podhoretz wrote in his classic COMMENTARY essay, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” Vidal became a leading purveyor of vile anti-Semitic attacks on Jews and Israel.

Read More

Earlier this week, the chattering classes honored the passing of author Gore Vidal with the sort of praise due to a great figure of literature, including a front-page obituary in the New York Times. Yet even the Times had to admit he was more of a celebrity than a great writer. I’ll confess that I found some of his historical novels entertaining even though they are thinly disguised polemics and generally bad history. Interestingly, his play, “The Best Man,” seems to have some staying power even though it is something of a time capsule about the way presidential nominating conventions used to work but never will again. Perhaps it is because the two protagonists of the piece fit neatly into liberal pop-culture stereotypes about politicians with the play’s principled but weak-willed liberal facing off against a despicable, conspiracy-theorist of a conservative who is, of course, a closeted homosexual.

It is also notable that all the appreciations of Vidal never fail to mention his memorable face off with William F. Buckley when ABC employed the two as guest commentators during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The event, now widely celebrated as a sort of intellectual battle of the titans in a long past golden age of wit, was the conceit for a piece by Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus published yesterday. Though they were open in their contempt for each other, Tanenhaus believes Vidal and Buckley were two sides of the same elitist patrician coin. What’s more he sees the fact that both were supporters of the isolationist “America First” movement as a sign that they had more in common that they or most of their readers thought. But Tanenhaus misses the point about this commonality. Buckley’s youthful embrace of Charles Lindbergh did not prevent him from standing up against anti-Semitism during his career and being the man who almost single-handedly ran Jew-haters out of the modern conservative movement. By contrast, as Norman Podhoretz wrote in his classic COMMENTARY essay, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” Vidal became a leading purveyor of vile anti-Semitic attacks on Jews and Israel.

That Tanenhaus would play up the Lindbergh connection while playing down his Jew-hatred, which he mentions only in passing and even then as an allegation that “some said,” shows a shocking lack of perspective on these two figures. He sees them as a pair of haughty aristocratic idealists who were:

Battling not so much the other as the distorted image of himself that his opponent represented. The terms they haughtily flung at each other were those other critics sometimes applied to them, only in reverse — Buckley, whose arch mannerisms were sometimes mocked as effete; Mr. Vidal, whose disdain for American vulgarity was tinged, some said, with anti-Semitism and dislike of the “lower orders.”

Vidal and Buckley had somewhat similar starting points as teenagers backing a movement whose neutrality about the Nazis fed in part on similar attitudes toward Jews. But though Buckley may have, as Tanenhaus notes, remembered his teenage isolationism with some affection in his 1976 novel Saving the Queen, surely it is far more important to understand that he transcended the politics of his youth with respect to the crucial question of anti-Semitism. Buckley not only successfully ousted the John Birchers from conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s but also brushed back colleagues Joseph Sobran and Pat Buchanan when they sank into the same anti-Semitic mire more than a generation later.

Yet Vidal never escaped the conspiratorial hate that gripped him in his youth. Indeed, it seethed within him and distorted much of his work. That Tanenhaus thinks this to be insignificant tells us all we need to know about the way the literary establishment is willing to forgive any sins committed in the name of liberalism.

In a week when the U.S. State Department issued an International Religious Freedom Report that noted the “rising tide of anti-Semitism” around the globe, the distinction between the conservative who fought Jew hatred and the liberal who embraced it seems more crucial than ever.

Read Less

A Sign of the Times

What could possibly be a more local concern than the design and lettering of street signs? And yet the New York Daily News is reporting that the federal government’s Federal Highway Administration (whose website opening page is entirely devoted to touting the glories of the Stimulus bill) is requiring that New York City replace its street signs with new ones that will be more readable and, therefore, presumably safer. In Frozen Sneakers, Iowa, (the late William F. Buckley’s mythical Nowheresville) that unfunded mandate would not amount to much. But the vast rabbit warren of New York City has a quarter of a million street signs, and they cost $110 apiece to manufacture and install. New York’s mayor didn’t know anything about it but didn’t seem concerned, as the state, in far worse fiscal shape than the city, will be paying the $27 million cost.

I haven’t the faintest idea if the new signs are more readable than the old ones, although that strikes me as easily testable. What bothers me is another question. Exactly what provision of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government authority over street signs? The answer, of course, is that none does, unless you count Article I, Section 8, which empowers Congress to lay taxes in order to provide for the “general Welfare of the United States.” But in 1936 the Supreme Court ruled (United States v. Butler) that the general welfare clause was limited to matters of “national, as distinguished from local welfare.” Of course, the Supreme Court in recent decades has allowed the commerce clause, giving the federal government control over interstate commerce, to be used to justify nearly any action of the federal government.

Meanwhile, today marks the start of the new fiscal year for the federal government. How many appropriations bills has Congress passed to fund the government for fiscal year 2011, its most basic responsibility? Exactly none. They couldn’t even come up with a budget resolution.

What could possibly be a more local concern than the design and lettering of street signs? And yet the New York Daily News is reporting that the federal government’s Federal Highway Administration (whose website opening page is entirely devoted to touting the glories of the Stimulus bill) is requiring that New York City replace its street signs with new ones that will be more readable and, therefore, presumably safer. In Frozen Sneakers, Iowa, (the late William F. Buckley’s mythical Nowheresville) that unfunded mandate would not amount to much. But the vast rabbit warren of New York City has a quarter of a million street signs, and they cost $110 apiece to manufacture and install. New York’s mayor didn’t know anything about it but didn’t seem concerned, as the state, in far worse fiscal shape than the city, will be paying the $27 million cost.

I haven’t the faintest idea if the new signs are more readable than the old ones, although that strikes me as easily testable. What bothers me is another question. Exactly what provision of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government authority over street signs? The answer, of course, is that none does, unless you count Article I, Section 8, which empowers Congress to lay taxes in order to provide for the “general Welfare of the United States.” But in 1936 the Supreme Court ruled (United States v. Butler) that the general welfare clause was limited to matters of “national, as distinguished from local welfare.” Of course, the Supreme Court in recent decades has allowed the commerce clause, giving the federal government control over interstate commerce, to be used to justify nearly any action of the federal government.

Meanwhile, today marks the start of the new fiscal year for the federal government. How many appropriations bills has Congress passed to fund the government for fiscal year 2011, its most basic responsibility? Exactly none. They couldn’t even come up with a budget resolution.

Read Less

RE: The Real Lindsay

Jason, your post brings to mind one of the most blistering paragraphs of William F. Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor, his account of his failed 1965 mayoral bid against Lindsay (and Abe Beame).

A modern Justine could, in New York City, wake up in the morning in a room she shares with her unemployed husband and two children, crowd into a subway in which she is hardly able to breathe, disembark at Grand Central and take a crosstown bus which takes twenty minutes to go the ten blocks to her textile loft, work a full day and receive her paycheck from which a sizable deduction is withdrawn in taxes and union fees, return via the same ordeal, prepare supper for her family and tune up the radio to full blast to shield the children from the gamy denunciations her nextdoor neighbor is hurling at her husband, walk a few blocks past hideous buildings to the neighborhood park to breathe a little fresh air, and fall into a coughing fit as the sulphur dioxides excite her latent asthma, go home, and on the way, lose her handbag to a purse-snatcher, sit down to oversee her son’s homework only to trip over the fact that he doesn’t really know the alphabet even though he had his fourteenth birthday yesterday, which he spent in the company of a well-known pusher. She hauls off and smacks him, but he dodges and she bangs her head against the table. The ambulance is slow in coming and at the hospital there is no doctor in attendance. An intern finally materializes and sticks her with a shot of morphine, and she dozes off to sleep. And dreams of John Lindsay.

Jason, your post brings to mind one of the most blistering paragraphs of William F. Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor, his account of his failed 1965 mayoral bid against Lindsay (and Abe Beame).

A modern Justine could, in New York City, wake up in the morning in a room she shares with her unemployed husband and two children, crowd into a subway in which she is hardly able to breathe, disembark at Grand Central and take a crosstown bus which takes twenty minutes to go the ten blocks to her textile loft, work a full day and receive her paycheck from which a sizable deduction is withdrawn in taxes and union fees, return via the same ordeal, prepare supper for her family and tune up the radio to full blast to shield the children from the gamy denunciations her nextdoor neighbor is hurling at her husband, walk a few blocks past hideous buildings to the neighborhood park to breathe a little fresh air, and fall into a coughing fit as the sulphur dioxides excite her latent asthma, go home, and on the way, lose her handbag to a purse-snatcher, sit down to oversee her son’s homework only to trip over the fact that he doesn’t really know the alphabet even though he had his fourteenth birthday yesterday, which he spent in the company of a well-known pusher. She hauls off and smacks him, but he dodges and she bangs her head against the table. The ambulance is slow in coming and at the hospital there is no doctor in attendance. An intern finally materializes and sticks her with a shot of morphine, and she dozes off to sleep. And dreams of John Lindsay.

Read Less

Home from the Sea

cross-posted at About Last Night

Moss Hart, who grew up poor and spent a not-inconsiderable portion of his young life riding the subway from deepest Brooklyn to Times Square, swore that if he ever struck it rich, he’d take cabs everywhere, even if his destination was only a block or two away. I’ve never been poor and have yet to strike it rich, but I rode the subway often enough in my first years as a New Yorker to be glad that I can now afford to take cabs. Be that as it may, a true New Yorker who wants to get somewhere at ten on a rainy morning takes the subway, and since today’s Mass for the repose of the soul of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died five weeks ago, was scheduled to start at ten o’clock sharp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I put on my black outfit and raincoat, descended into the bowels of Manhattan, and made my bumpy way to Rockefeller Center in the midst of a rush-hour crowd.

It’s been quite a while since I walked through Rockefeller Center, even longer since I’ve been inside St. Patrick’s, and a very long time indeed since I last attended a memorial service for a public figure. For all these reasons, I have no standard against which to measure Bill’s funeral obsequies. All I can tell you was that today’s service seemed as splendid as it could possibly have been. The cathedral was full of mourners, the choir loft full of singers, and the music was mostly appropriate to the occasion. Bill was a serious amateur musician who loved Bach above all things–he actually performed the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto in public on more than one occasion–so the organist played “Sheep May Safely Graze” and the slow movement of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major. No less suitable were the sung portions of the Mass, drawn from Victoria’s sweetly austere Missa “O magnum mysterium,” and the closing hymn, the noble tune from Gustav Holst’s The Planets to which the following words were later set: I vow to thee, my country–all earthly things above–/Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.

The only thing that made my inner critic smile wryly was the performance during communion of the Adagio in G Minor long attributed to Albinoni but in fact woven out of whole cloth by one Remo Giazotto. It is a preposterously operatic piece of spurious yard goods, and to hear it played on the organ with all stops pulled put me in mind of something Bill wrote after attending a Virgil Fox recital many years ago:

At one point during a prelude, I am tempted to rise solemnly, commandeer a shotgun, and advise Fox, preferably in imperious German, if only I could learn German in time to consummate the fantasy, that if he does not release the goddam vox humana, which is oohing-ahing-eeing the music where Bach clearly intended something closer to a bel canto, I shall simply have to blow his head off.

That was the Bill Buckley I knew, whip-smart and impishly outrageous, the same man that David Remnick had in mind when he described Bill as having “the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”

I wish I could say I knew him well, but I didn’t. I dined at his table a number of times but was only alone with him once, when I interviewed him about Whittaker Chambers for an anthology of Chambers’ journalism that I edited in 1989. On that occasion Bill assured me that although they had been close, Chambers never had “any direct historical or intellectual influence” on him. The reason he gave is striking:

I never embraced, in part because subjectively it’s contra naturam to me, that utter, total, objective, strategic pessimism of his. Among other things, I think it’s wrong theologically to assume that the world is doomed before God decides to doom it. So I never drank too deeply of his Weltschmerz.

Indeed he did not: Bill was the least weltschmerzy person imaginable. Henry Kissinger, who eulogized him this morning, alluded to that side of Bill’s personality when he remarked that Bill “was vouchsafed a little miracle: to enjoy so much what was compelled by inner necessity.” I couldn’t have put it better. Bill worked fearfully hard and was deadly serious about what he believed, but he extracted self-evident enjoyment from everything he did, and you couldn’t be in his presence for more than a minute or two without responding to his joie de vivre. If I’d been in charge of the music today, I would have made a point of picking something a good deal more festive–Bach’s Fugue à la gigue, say, or one of the harpsichord sonatas in which Scarlatti turns the instrument Bill loved best into a giant guitar.

Christopher Buckley, Bill’s son, followed Henry Kissinger, and gave just the sort of eulogy I’d expected from him, funny and light-fingered, putting much-needed smiles on our faces. Only at the end did he sound a darker note, quoting the lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” that he chose as the epitaph for a man who loved sailing as much as he loved Bach: Here he lies where he long’d to be;/Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill. Then we all sang “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” pushed our way past the waiting photographers, and returned to the gray, misty day.

I passed up a lunch invitation and went home by myself, preferring to be alone with my thoughts. I was thinking of an evening in the fall of 1985, not long after I moved to New York from the Midwest. I’d been writing for National Review, Bill’s magazine, since 1981, but I’d never met my first great patron face to face, so he invited me to an editorial dinner at his Park Avenue apartment. Back then I was working for Harper’s, whose offices were in Greenwich Village, and the thought of meeting Bill for the first time was so exciting that I walked all the way from Astor Place up to 73 E. 73rd Street (where Bill invariably entertained at 7:30).

It was, of course, a symbolic gesture: I was taking possession of the streets of the city to which I had moved and in which I hoped someday to make a name for myself. At the end of my journey I knocked on the door of Bill’s maisonette, and a few moments later he clasped my hand and said, “Hey, buddy!” It was, I would learn, his standard greeting, always uttered with a warmth that remained disarming no matter how many times you heard it.

Ever since then I have associated Bill Buckley with New York, whose doors he flung wide to me, just as he opened the pages of the magazine he edited. Now New York is my home–but Bill is gone, buried in Connecticut, home at last from the sea. Somehow you never imagine outliving the people who show you through the doors that lead to the rest of your life.

cross-posted at About Last Night

Moss Hart, who grew up poor and spent a not-inconsiderable portion of his young life riding the subway from deepest Brooklyn to Times Square, swore that if he ever struck it rich, he’d take cabs everywhere, even if his destination was only a block or two away. I’ve never been poor and have yet to strike it rich, but I rode the subway often enough in my first years as a New Yorker to be glad that I can now afford to take cabs. Be that as it may, a true New Yorker who wants to get somewhere at ten on a rainy morning takes the subway, and since today’s Mass for the repose of the soul of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died five weeks ago, was scheduled to start at ten o’clock sharp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I put on my black outfit and raincoat, descended into the bowels of Manhattan, and made my bumpy way to Rockefeller Center in the midst of a rush-hour crowd.

It’s been quite a while since I walked through Rockefeller Center, even longer since I’ve been inside St. Patrick’s, and a very long time indeed since I last attended a memorial service for a public figure. For all these reasons, I have no standard against which to measure Bill’s funeral obsequies. All I can tell you was that today’s service seemed as splendid as it could possibly have been. The cathedral was full of mourners, the choir loft full of singers, and the music was mostly appropriate to the occasion. Bill was a serious amateur musician who loved Bach above all things–he actually performed the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto in public on more than one occasion–so the organist played “Sheep May Safely Graze” and the slow movement of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major. No less suitable were the sung portions of the Mass, drawn from Victoria’s sweetly austere Missa “O magnum mysterium,” and the closing hymn, the noble tune from Gustav Holst’s The Planets to which the following words were later set: I vow to thee, my country–all earthly things above–/Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.

The only thing that made my inner critic smile wryly was the performance during communion of the Adagio in G Minor long attributed to Albinoni but in fact woven out of whole cloth by one Remo Giazotto. It is a preposterously operatic piece of spurious yard goods, and to hear it played on the organ with all stops pulled put me in mind of something Bill wrote after attending a Virgil Fox recital many years ago:

At one point during a prelude, I am tempted to rise solemnly, commandeer a shotgun, and advise Fox, preferably in imperious German, if only I could learn German in time to consummate the fantasy, that if he does not release the goddam vox humana, which is oohing-ahing-eeing the music where Bach clearly intended something closer to a bel canto, I shall simply have to blow his head off.

That was the Bill Buckley I knew, whip-smart and impishly outrageous, the same man that David Remnick had in mind when he described Bill as having “the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”

I wish I could say I knew him well, but I didn’t. I dined at his table a number of times but was only alone with him once, when I interviewed him about Whittaker Chambers for an anthology of Chambers’ journalism that I edited in 1989. On that occasion Bill assured me that although they had been close, Chambers never had “any direct historical or intellectual influence” on him. The reason he gave is striking:

I never embraced, in part because subjectively it’s contra naturam to me, that utter, total, objective, strategic pessimism of his. Among other things, I think it’s wrong theologically to assume that the world is doomed before God decides to doom it. So I never drank too deeply of his Weltschmerz.

Indeed he did not: Bill was the least weltschmerzy person imaginable. Henry Kissinger, who eulogized him this morning, alluded to that side of Bill’s personality when he remarked that Bill “was vouchsafed a little miracle: to enjoy so much what was compelled by inner necessity.” I couldn’t have put it better. Bill worked fearfully hard and was deadly serious about what he believed, but he extracted self-evident enjoyment from everything he did, and you couldn’t be in his presence for more than a minute or two without responding to his joie de vivre. If I’d been in charge of the music today, I would have made a point of picking something a good deal more festive–Bach’s Fugue à la gigue, say, or one of the harpsichord sonatas in which Scarlatti turns the instrument Bill loved best into a giant guitar.

Christopher Buckley, Bill’s son, followed Henry Kissinger, and gave just the sort of eulogy I’d expected from him, funny and light-fingered, putting much-needed smiles on our faces. Only at the end did he sound a darker note, quoting the lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” that he chose as the epitaph for a man who loved sailing as much as he loved Bach: Here he lies where he long’d to be;/Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill. Then we all sang “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” pushed our way past the waiting photographers, and returned to the gray, misty day.

I passed up a lunch invitation and went home by myself, preferring to be alone with my thoughts. I was thinking of an evening in the fall of 1985, not long after I moved to New York from the Midwest. I’d been writing for National Review, Bill’s magazine, since 1981, but I’d never met my first great patron face to face, so he invited me to an editorial dinner at his Park Avenue apartment. Back then I was working for Harper’s, whose offices were in Greenwich Village, and the thought of meeting Bill for the first time was so exciting that I walked all the way from Astor Place up to 73 E. 73rd Street (where Bill invariably entertained at 7:30).

It was, of course, a symbolic gesture: I was taking possession of the streets of the city to which I had moved and in which I hoped someday to make a name for myself. At the end of my journey I knocked on the door of Bill’s maisonette, and a few moments later he clasped my hand and said, “Hey, buddy!” It was, I would learn, his standard greeting, always uttered with a warmth that remained disarming no matter how many times you heard it.

Ever since then I have associated Bill Buckley with New York, whose doors he flung wide to me, just as he opened the pages of the magazine he edited. Now New York is my home–but Bill is gone, buried in Connecticut, home at last from the sea. Somehow you never imagine outliving the people who show you through the doors that lead to the rest of your life.

Read Less

Blair’s a Yale Man Now

Frankly, my initial reaction, as a Yale lecturer, on hearing that Tony Blair will spend 2008-09 at Yale as the Howland Distinguished Fellow (he’ll be teaching a seminar on “faith and globalization”) was that it puts us one up on Harvard. My second was to predict to myself that while Blair will receive a rapturous reception from the students, a few of his faculty colleagues will likely be no more than civil. This new position will not make Blair any better liked by his enemies at home, among whom his interest in matters of faith was almost as unpopular as his friendship with President Bush. Indeed, the two were often linked. The comment forums of the various British newspapers are already lighting up with predictable abuse, and the tinfoil hat brigade is asserting various implausible connections between the university, assorted multinationals, President Bush, Blair, and, inevitably, the Iraq War.

Blair’s choice of seminar subject must be seen in light of the fact that, later in the year, he will launch the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which will promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it’s possible to doubt his thesis that the central problem in the Middle East is the relationship between the “Abrahamic religions,” as he prefers to call them. The real problem, I’d say, is that the Middle East is largely ruled by dictators who see no law larger than themselves.

But Blair’s arrival is a contribution nonetheless. Over fifty years ago, William F. Buckley decried the retreat of faith at Yale. By the late 1990’s, it was no longer discussed here in any serious way: indeed, it was simply never mentioned. Since 9/11, interest in faith as a force in human affairs has begun to return at Yale. Blair’s seminar marks a further, higher-profile reinforcement of that vital trend. Even if you disagree with his diagnosis of the Middle East, he will be teaching the young and eager about things that truly matter.

Welcome to Yale, Mr. Prime Minister.

Frankly, my initial reaction, as a Yale lecturer, on hearing that Tony Blair will spend 2008-09 at Yale as the Howland Distinguished Fellow (he’ll be teaching a seminar on “faith and globalization”) was that it puts us one up on Harvard. My second was to predict to myself that while Blair will receive a rapturous reception from the students, a few of his faculty colleagues will likely be no more than civil. This new position will not make Blair any better liked by his enemies at home, among whom his interest in matters of faith was almost as unpopular as his friendship with President Bush. Indeed, the two were often linked. The comment forums of the various British newspapers are already lighting up with predictable abuse, and the tinfoil hat brigade is asserting various implausible connections between the university, assorted multinationals, President Bush, Blair, and, inevitably, the Iraq War.

Blair’s choice of seminar subject must be seen in light of the fact that, later in the year, he will launch the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which will promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it’s possible to doubt his thesis that the central problem in the Middle East is the relationship between the “Abrahamic religions,” as he prefers to call them. The real problem, I’d say, is that the Middle East is largely ruled by dictators who see no law larger than themselves.

But Blair’s arrival is a contribution nonetheless. Over fifty years ago, William F. Buckley decried the retreat of faith at Yale. By the late 1990’s, it was no longer discussed here in any serious way: indeed, it was simply never mentioned. Since 9/11, interest in faith as a force in human affairs has begun to return at Yale. Blair’s seminar marks a further, higher-profile reinforcement of that vital trend. Even if you disagree with his diagnosis of the Middle East, he will be teaching the young and eager about things that truly matter.

Welcome to Yale, Mr. Prime Minister.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote books as easily as most people write letters, and most of them, not at all surprisingly, have proved to be of ephemeral interest. Such is the near-inevitable fate of the journalist, who writes not for posterity but for the immediate moment. Bill had a different kind of claim on posterity’s attention. But I suspect that some of his essays will also prove to have a lasting life as will at least one of his bonafide books, Cruising Speed: A Documentary. Published in 1971, Cruising Speed is a present-tense diary of a single, randomly chosen week in Bill’s phenomenally hectic life, written on the fly as a kind of literary experiment. It is, so far as I know, sui generis, a genre all to itself save for the companion volume, Overdrive, that Bill wrote in 1983, at which time Norman Podhoretz succinctly described the rules of the game in a glowing review that appeared in COMMENTARY:

Like Cruising Speed (1971) before it, Overdrive is an account of a single, and presumably typical, week in Buckley’s life. Everything he does or that happens to him in the course of that week is recorded, along with such background information or reminiscence as is needed to make the present moment fully intelligible. The form, in other words, is a journal, but one that differs from the usual journal in being frankly and deliberately written for publication.

I liked Overdrive very much, but its publication inevitably detracted from the uniqueness of Cruising Speed, which seemed and seems to me the most aesthetically satisfying piece of writing that Bill ever did, just as it conveys his wholly original personality more fully and precisely than anything else he wrote. He was not by nature an introspective man—that was why he never succeeded in writing the systematic exposition of conservative philosophy that had long been his great goal—but a journalist pur sang, and in Cruising Speed he miraculously found a way to tease art out of his unreflective hastiness.

The book’s most striking passage comes at the very end, when Bill pauses for a moment to consider a letter he had just received from “Herbert,” a friendly left-wing historian who urged him to turn from his incessant public pursuits and spend more time in intellectual contemplation. “What will be your thoughts,” Herbert wrote, “if when you come to your deathbed you look back and realize that all your life amounted to no more than one big highly successful game of power and self-glorification?”

The letter brought Bill up short, and caused him to ask of himself the hard questions that can be found in the penultimate paragraph of Cruising Speed:

Herbert is hauntingly right—c’est que la vérité qui blesse—what are my reserves? How will I satisfy them, who listen to me today, tomorrow? Hell, how will I satisfy myself tomorrow, satisfying myself so imperfectly, which is not to say insufficiently, today; at cruising speed?

I have been no less haunted by that passage ever since I first read it many years ago. It never occurred to me to ask Bill about it—I didn’t know him well enough—but I wondered whether he still asked himself the same questions. Certainly he was asking them in 1983, for Overdrive contains an equally striking sentence on a similar theme: “The unexamined life may not be worth living, in which case I will concede that mine is not worth living.”

It goes without saying that Bill’s life was worth living: he was one of the greatest public figures to come along in my lifetime, and one of the most consequential journalists of the century. But the fact that he should have thought to question the ultimate value of his own crowded life—and that he had the courage to do so in public—says something deeply moving about his own essential seriousness.

• William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote books as easily as most people write letters, and most of them, not at all surprisingly, have proved to be of ephemeral interest. Such is the near-inevitable fate of the journalist, who writes not for posterity but for the immediate moment. Bill had a different kind of claim on posterity’s attention. But I suspect that some of his essays will also prove to have a lasting life as will at least one of his bonafide books, Cruising Speed: A Documentary. Published in 1971, Cruising Speed is a present-tense diary of a single, randomly chosen week in Bill’s phenomenally hectic life, written on the fly as a kind of literary experiment. It is, so far as I know, sui generis, a genre all to itself save for the companion volume, Overdrive, that Bill wrote in 1983, at which time Norman Podhoretz succinctly described the rules of the game in a glowing review that appeared in COMMENTARY:

Like Cruising Speed (1971) before it, Overdrive is an account of a single, and presumably typical, week in Buckley’s life. Everything he does or that happens to him in the course of that week is recorded, along with such background information or reminiscence as is needed to make the present moment fully intelligible. The form, in other words, is a journal, but one that differs from the usual journal in being frankly and deliberately written for publication.

I liked Overdrive very much, but its publication inevitably detracted from the uniqueness of Cruising Speed, which seemed and seems to me the most aesthetically satisfying piece of writing that Bill ever did, just as it conveys his wholly original personality more fully and precisely than anything else he wrote. He was not by nature an introspective man—that was why he never succeeded in writing the systematic exposition of conservative philosophy that had long been his great goal—but a journalist pur sang, and in Cruising Speed he miraculously found a way to tease art out of his unreflective hastiness.

The book’s most striking passage comes at the very end, when Bill pauses for a moment to consider a letter he had just received from “Herbert,” a friendly left-wing historian who urged him to turn from his incessant public pursuits and spend more time in intellectual contemplation. “What will be your thoughts,” Herbert wrote, “if when you come to your deathbed you look back and realize that all your life amounted to no more than one big highly successful game of power and self-glorification?”

The letter brought Bill up short, and caused him to ask of himself the hard questions that can be found in the penultimate paragraph of Cruising Speed:

Herbert is hauntingly right—c’est que la vérité qui blesse—what are my reserves? How will I satisfy them, who listen to me today, tomorrow? Hell, how will I satisfy myself tomorrow, satisfying myself so imperfectly, which is not to say insufficiently, today; at cruising speed?

I have been no less haunted by that passage ever since I first read it many years ago. It never occurred to me to ask Bill about it—I didn’t know him well enough—but I wondered whether he still asked himself the same questions. Certainly he was asking them in 1983, for Overdrive contains an equally striking sentence on a similar theme: “The unexamined life may not be worth living, in which case I will concede that mine is not worth living.”

It goes without saying that Bill’s life was worth living: he was one of the greatest public figures to come along in my lifetime, and one of the most consequential journalists of the century. But the fact that he should have thought to question the ultimate value of his own crowded life—and that he had the courage to do so in public—says something deeply moving about his own essential seriousness.

Read Less

McCain Blogger Call

John McCain held another blogger call today, starting off with a jab at Barack Obama on Iraq. Citing Obama’s recent statement that U.S. troops might have to re-enter after he withdrew them because Al Qaeda “might establish a base,” McCain stressed that Al Qaeda already “has a base” and that General Petraeus has identified Iraq as the “central battleground” in the war against terrorism.

I asked how he regarded the Democrats’ abandonment of free trade and to expand on his thoughts on the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr. On trade, he stated that “the far Left is driving the debate” and gave a spirited defense of the benefits of free trade, which he termed “a fundamental requirement of American policy.” On Buckley, he declared that he was “a trailblazer” and “a true conservative leader” and “one of the nicest, one of the [most] decent people” he knew.

In response to other questions he enthusiastically stated he would continue town hall meetings and keep the media “on the bus” even after he wraps up the nomination. As for Obama, he demurred when asked if he would attack Obama’s experience, saying rather he would explain his own experience and point out the “very, very significant differences” on policy issues. Asked about George Will’s column today blasting him on campaign finance reform he diplomatically complimented Will as a great conservative writer, but said they would have to “agree to disagree” on campaign reform. However, he acknowledged (as Will pointed out) that he had refused to shake former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith’s hand because, he alleged, Smith had “savaged me and attacked my character.” (His tone was calm, but there could be no mistaking his animosity toward Smith.)

On other topics he wholeheartedly supported a proposal by Senator Jim DeMint to enact a one-year ban on earmarks, expressed “grave concern” about the progress of the Six Party talks (and said the New York Philharmonic trip was “fine,” but he wished people from the “world’s largest gulag” could have attended the concert instead of 1400 hand-picked guests), and said that President Bush could help the GOP’s chances and conservatives more generally by staying the course in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintaining pressure on Iran and vetoing any spending bill with an earmark. On Iraq, he explained that we could have a long-term presence there, but was “absolutely” confident that military victory could be achieved during his term as president. For good measure he also passed a “pop quiz’ on the difference between the YouTube and MySpace websites.

Over all, he seemed feisty and engaged, but careful in tone to stress the upcoming election would be conducted with respect. In short, he seems raring to start the general election battle.

John McCain held another blogger call today, starting off with a jab at Barack Obama on Iraq. Citing Obama’s recent statement that U.S. troops might have to re-enter after he withdrew them because Al Qaeda “might establish a base,” McCain stressed that Al Qaeda already “has a base” and that General Petraeus has identified Iraq as the “central battleground” in the war against terrorism.

I asked how he regarded the Democrats’ abandonment of free trade and to expand on his thoughts on the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr. On trade, he stated that “the far Left is driving the debate” and gave a spirited defense of the benefits of free trade, which he termed “a fundamental requirement of American policy.” On Buckley, he declared that he was “a trailblazer” and “a true conservative leader” and “one of the nicest, one of the [most] decent people” he knew.

In response to other questions he enthusiastically stated he would continue town hall meetings and keep the media “on the bus” even after he wraps up the nomination. As for Obama, he demurred when asked if he would attack Obama’s experience, saying rather he would explain his own experience and point out the “very, very significant differences” on policy issues. Asked about George Will’s column today blasting him on campaign finance reform he diplomatically complimented Will as a great conservative writer, but said they would have to “agree to disagree” on campaign reform. However, he acknowledged (as Will pointed out) that he had refused to shake former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith’s hand because, he alleged, Smith had “savaged me and attacked my character.” (His tone was calm, but there could be no mistaking his animosity toward Smith.)

On other topics he wholeheartedly supported a proposal by Senator Jim DeMint to enact a one-year ban on earmarks, expressed “grave concern” about the progress of the Six Party talks (and said the New York Philharmonic trip was “fine,” but he wished people from the “world’s largest gulag” could have attended the concert instead of 1400 hand-picked guests), and said that President Bush could help the GOP’s chances and conservatives more generally by staying the course in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintaining pressure on Iran and vetoing any spending bill with an earmark. On Iraq, he explained that we could have a long-term presence there, but was “absolutely” confident that military victory could be achieved during his term as president. For good measure he also passed a “pop quiz’ on the difference between the YouTube and MySpace websites.

Over all, he seemed feisty and engaged, but careful in tone to stress the upcoming election would be conducted with respect. In short, he seems raring to start the general election battle.

Read Less

Those Eyes!

When I hear the name William F. Buckley, or see it in print I automatically think:”Those eyes!” Darting, piercing, dancing — with that trademark playful widening gesture, as if to say “Oh really!” I never met him, but enjoyed countless hours of his company through Firing Line and his books and columns. (Has any individual in modern history written so much, so well?) Others will recount his indisputable role in the development of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

He was the living refutation of many of the Left’s criticisms of conservatives and the conservative movement. Repudiating the criticism (earned in some cases) that conservatives were racists, Buckley showed the John Birchers and the anti-Semites the door. Conservatives, in the cartoon version of politics, were supposed to be mean and small-minded; he was generous, gracious, and had an eclectic assortment of talents and interests. If the Left bragged that conservatism was outmoded and irrelevant, Buckley demonstrated that the most vibrant intellectual energy resided on the Right.

The example that he set, not only of intellectual rigor but of joyous friendship and respect for his intellectual opponents, is one we should all take to heart. His friendship and decades of invigorating dialogue with John Kenneth Galbraith taught us that our opponents may be our friends and our intellectual life would be poorer without them. He was never cruel and never rude, but always interesting. He left many devoted readers, friends, and inspired conservatives, but no replacement. Even he could not do that.

When I hear the name William F. Buckley, or see it in print I automatically think:”Those eyes!” Darting, piercing, dancing — with that trademark playful widening gesture, as if to say “Oh really!” I never met him, but enjoyed countless hours of his company through Firing Line and his books and columns. (Has any individual in modern history written so much, so well?) Others will recount his indisputable role in the development of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

He was the living refutation of many of the Left’s criticisms of conservatives and the conservative movement. Repudiating the criticism (earned in some cases) that conservatives were racists, Buckley showed the John Birchers and the anti-Semites the door. Conservatives, in the cartoon version of politics, were supposed to be mean and small-minded; he was generous, gracious, and had an eclectic assortment of talents and interests. If the Left bragged that conservatism was outmoded and irrelevant, Buckley demonstrated that the most vibrant intellectual energy resided on the Right.

The example that he set, not only of intellectual rigor but of joyous friendship and respect for his intellectual opponents, is one we should all take to heart. His friendship and decades of invigorating dialogue with John Kenneth Galbraith taught us that our opponents may be our friends and our intellectual life would be poorer without them. He was never cruel and never rude, but always interesting. He left many devoted readers, friends, and inspired conservatives, but no replacement. Even he could not do that.

Read Less

Buckley and the Jews

Among his many other accomplishments, William F. Buckley Jr. made the conservative movement a far less forbidding place for Jews.

Conservatism in the early 1960’s was, fairly or not, largely defined in the Jewish mind as a downscale hothouse of paranoia, racism and resentment fronted by such figures as the Christian Crusader Rev. Billy James Hargis, the anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler and, of course, Robert Welch, whose John Birch Society was never officially racist or anti-Semitic but attracted a fair number of those who could accurately be classified as such.

By basically reading the more conspiratorial-minded organizations and polemicists out of mainstream conservatism (a story engagingly told by the liberal journalist John Judis in his 1988 biography William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives), Buckley made it that much more difficult for the media to portray the right as a redoubt of angry kooks and Kleagles. His having done so no doubt smoothed the way for those liberal Jewish intellectuals who would eventually — and at first somewhat ambivalently — make their journey into the conservative camp.

A devout Catholic who wrote with remarkable frankness about the anti-Semitism of his own father, Buckley (who characterized anti-Semitism as an “awful, sinful practice”) always seemed comfortable around Jews. Indeed, several of the editors and writers who helped Buckley launch National Review were Jews; “without them,” wrote historian George Nash, “the magazine might never have gotten off the ground…”

When it came to Israel, Buckley’s support may have been a little spotty during the state’s early years — in 1958, responding to what he took to be Israel’s slow response to an American request that U.S. military aircraft be permitted to fly over Israeli territory, he snappishly wrote, “If Internal Revenue started to disallow tax exemption of gifts to the United Jewish Appeal, Israel wouldn’t be able to pay the cable-cost of sassing our State Department” — but certainly by the mid-1960’s he was a consistent champion of the Jewish state, a position he maintained for the remaining four and a half decades of his life, despite occasional differences with Israeli policy.

In 1972 Buckley famously proposed that Israel become the 51st American state, pointing out that Jerusalem is no more geographically remote from Washington than Anchorage or Honolulu.

The arrangement, Buckley argued, would forever put to rest Israeli security fears: “If Israel becomes a part of the United States, there is no further question of attacking the state of Israel–as well attack the city of Chicago.”

To expedite statehood, Buckley wrote, a “resolution should be introduced in Congress and a national debate should begin. Put me down in favor.”

A fanciful notion, to be sure, and one that most Jews and Israelis (not to mention Americans) would dismiss out of hand. What cannot be dismissed as easily is the suggestion that without William Buckley, the political right might have remained an untenable–even an unthinkable–destination for those Jews who no longer could, in good conscience, remain faithful to the political faith of their fathers.

Among his many other accomplishments, William F. Buckley Jr. made the conservative movement a far less forbidding place for Jews.

Conservatism in the early 1960’s was, fairly or not, largely defined in the Jewish mind as a downscale hothouse of paranoia, racism and resentment fronted by such figures as the Christian Crusader Rev. Billy James Hargis, the anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler and, of course, Robert Welch, whose John Birch Society was never officially racist or anti-Semitic but attracted a fair number of those who could accurately be classified as such.

By basically reading the more conspiratorial-minded organizations and polemicists out of mainstream conservatism (a story engagingly told by the liberal journalist John Judis in his 1988 biography William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives), Buckley made it that much more difficult for the media to portray the right as a redoubt of angry kooks and Kleagles. His having done so no doubt smoothed the way for those liberal Jewish intellectuals who would eventually — and at first somewhat ambivalently — make their journey into the conservative camp.

A devout Catholic who wrote with remarkable frankness about the anti-Semitism of his own father, Buckley (who characterized anti-Semitism as an “awful, sinful practice”) always seemed comfortable around Jews. Indeed, several of the editors and writers who helped Buckley launch National Review were Jews; “without them,” wrote historian George Nash, “the magazine might never have gotten off the ground…”

When it came to Israel, Buckley’s support may have been a little spotty during the state’s early years — in 1958, responding to what he took to be Israel’s slow response to an American request that U.S. military aircraft be permitted to fly over Israeli territory, he snappishly wrote, “If Internal Revenue started to disallow tax exemption of gifts to the United Jewish Appeal, Israel wouldn’t be able to pay the cable-cost of sassing our State Department” — but certainly by the mid-1960’s he was a consistent champion of the Jewish state, a position he maintained for the remaining four and a half decades of his life, despite occasional differences with Israeli policy.

In 1972 Buckley famously proposed that Israel become the 51st American state, pointing out that Jerusalem is no more geographically remote from Washington than Anchorage or Honolulu.

The arrangement, Buckley argued, would forever put to rest Israeli security fears: “If Israel becomes a part of the United States, there is no further question of attacking the state of Israel–as well attack the city of Chicago.”

To expedite statehood, Buckley wrote, a “resolution should be introduced in Congress and a national debate should begin. Put me down in favor.”

A fanciful notion, to be sure, and one that most Jews and Israelis (not to mention Americans) would dismiss out of hand. What cannot be dismissed as easily is the suggestion that without William Buckley, the political right might have remained an untenable–even an unthinkable–destination for those Jews who no longer could, in good conscience, remain faithful to the political faith of their fathers.

Read Less

“Stay Positive”

I first discovered William F. Buckley in my early teens. In an effort, I suppose, to become more serious and informed, I started regularly reading the Star Ledger—the closest thing to a real newspaper in New Jersey. On one occasion when I made my way through enough of the paper to reach the op-ed page in the back, I ran across a Buckley column, which I remember finding oddly intense and captivating. I was soon a regular reader—almost always with a dictionary in hand. It’s hard now to imagine what sense I could have made of Buckley then, but somehow he got me to think, and to laugh, and to read. And I was pleased to discover that this very strange and interesting voice found expression in more than brief columns but in books (so many books!) and on the pages of a magazine filled with other voices and views like his. He directed me to a world of ideas and good sense and good humor that I soon discovered was vast and deep. I was hooked, and have been an incurable conservative since.

I only met Buckley once, and only for a moment. I was in college, attending some sort of conservative conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. I was with three friends, and we walked up to Buckley and introduced ourselves as the only four conservatives at American University (which was only a slight exaggeration). Buckley laughed at our travails, so familiar they must have been to him, and he said just two words, through a chuckle: “stay positive.”

He always did, and that was always an important part of his power and appeal. Conservatives easily get dour and down, and the rest of humanity finds such grumpiness unattractive. Buckley offered a smiling, confident, and very appealing conservatism that was at the same time also deeply serious. His good cheer was not an act. It was the proper response to the truth that moves conservatives: that the world we have inherited is a good place, worth defending and cherishing. As Buckley always seemed to understand, that’s a good reason to smile.

Others who knew Buckley will have much deeper and more meaningful things to say about him. But like most of those deeply in his debt, I didn’t know the man personally, and can think of nothing more profound and true to say in this sad moment than two plain and simple words I would have loved to say to him in person: thank you.

I first discovered William F. Buckley in my early teens. In an effort, I suppose, to become more serious and informed, I started regularly reading the Star Ledger—the closest thing to a real newspaper in New Jersey. On one occasion when I made my way through enough of the paper to reach the op-ed page in the back, I ran across a Buckley column, which I remember finding oddly intense and captivating. I was soon a regular reader—almost always with a dictionary in hand. It’s hard now to imagine what sense I could have made of Buckley then, but somehow he got me to think, and to laugh, and to read. And I was pleased to discover that this very strange and interesting voice found expression in more than brief columns but in books (so many books!) and on the pages of a magazine filled with other voices and views like his. He directed me to a world of ideas and good sense and good humor that I soon discovered was vast and deep. I was hooked, and have been an incurable conservative since.

I only met Buckley once, and only for a moment. I was in college, attending some sort of conservative conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. I was with three friends, and we walked up to Buckley and introduced ourselves as the only four conservatives at American University (which was only a slight exaggeration). Buckley laughed at our travails, so familiar they must have been to him, and he said just two words, through a chuckle: “stay positive.”

He always did, and that was always an important part of his power and appeal. Conservatives easily get dour and down, and the rest of humanity finds such grumpiness unattractive. Buckley offered a smiling, confident, and very appealing conservatism that was at the same time also deeply serious. His good cheer was not an act. It was the proper response to the truth that moves conservatives: that the world we have inherited is a good place, worth defending and cherishing. As Buckley always seemed to understand, that’s a good reason to smile.

Others who knew Buckley will have much deeper and more meaningful things to say about him. But like most of those deeply in his debt, I didn’t know the man personally, and can think of nothing more profound and true to say in this sad moment than two plain and simple words I would have loved to say to him in person: thank you.

Read Less

Two 20 Year-Olds, Two Bottles of Wine, and Buckley

People my age are of a generation that grew up in the twilight of the Buckley era. When I was in college, he was no longer the editor of National Review, and the last episode of Firing Line was taped before I graduated. We had to discover William F. Buckley. Jr. on our own, and for me, like so many others, the Buckley Discovery was a defining moment. In my case, it instigated a period of determined used book store expeditions, and then some rather sophomoric attempts at incorporating Buckleyisms into my verbal repartee: There’s nothing like dropping “jingoistic rodomontade” into a conversation, or accusing someone of carrying on with their “activist pornography.”

The idea struck me and a fellow Buckley fanatic that it would have to be our solemn duty to interview the man himself and thereby, we hoped, introduce the Buckley Canon to our benighted fellow partisans, who toiled largely in ignorance of their great forefather. I sent an obsequious letter to Mr. Buckley and promised not to ask stupid questions.

We arrived at the Buckley residence in Stamford and found the man at work in his converted garage office. I was in a cold sweat; Buckley sat leisurely at his computer keyboard, in the eye of a hurricane of papers, magazines, and books that engulfed his desk, chair, the floor — every horizontal surface. After a few handshakes and pleasantries, my friend and I nervously commenced the interview, during which we both sought above all to avoid giving the impression that we were complete stammering idiots. Graciously, he never once let us feel that way.

He invited us into his house for lunch (I still remember: split pea soup, chicken, and ice cream), and, two hours and two bottles of red wine later, my friend and I staggered out, thanked Mr. Buckley profusely, and went on our way. As a gift he gave me a copy of McCarthy and His Enemies, the only one of his books that had never surfaced during my book store missions.

In what was supposed to be our interview of him, Buckley probably spent more time asking my friend and me questions than we did him — about school, our interests, our opinions on the world. During that short afternoon, I realized that all the things people had written about Buckley’s kindness, generosity, and gift for friendship were not just the kind of perfunctory tributes to great men that people often pay, but were among the most genuine and truthful things ever said about him.

People my age are of a generation that grew up in the twilight of the Buckley era. When I was in college, he was no longer the editor of National Review, and the last episode of Firing Line was taped before I graduated. We had to discover William F. Buckley. Jr. on our own, and for me, like so many others, the Buckley Discovery was a defining moment. In my case, it instigated a period of determined used book store expeditions, and then some rather sophomoric attempts at incorporating Buckleyisms into my verbal repartee: There’s nothing like dropping “jingoistic rodomontade” into a conversation, or accusing someone of carrying on with their “activist pornography.”

The idea struck me and a fellow Buckley fanatic that it would have to be our solemn duty to interview the man himself and thereby, we hoped, introduce the Buckley Canon to our benighted fellow partisans, who toiled largely in ignorance of their great forefather. I sent an obsequious letter to Mr. Buckley and promised not to ask stupid questions.

We arrived at the Buckley residence in Stamford and found the man at work in his converted garage office. I was in a cold sweat; Buckley sat leisurely at his computer keyboard, in the eye of a hurricane of papers, magazines, and books that engulfed his desk, chair, the floor — every horizontal surface. After a few handshakes and pleasantries, my friend and I nervously commenced the interview, during which we both sought above all to avoid giving the impression that we were complete stammering idiots. Graciously, he never once let us feel that way.

He invited us into his house for lunch (I still remember: split pea soup, chicken, and ice cream), and, two hours and two bottles of red wine later, my friend and I staggered out, thanked Mr. Buckley profusely, and went on our way. As a gift he gave me a copy of McCarthy and His Enemies, the only one of his books that had never surfaced during my book store missions.

In what was supposed to be our interview of him, Buckley probably spent more time asking my friend and me questions than we did him — about school, our interests, our opinions on the world. During that short afternoon, I realized that all the things people had written about Buckley’s kindness, generosity, and gift for friendship were not just the kind of perfunctory tributes to great men that people often pay, but were among the most genuine and truthful things ever said about him.

Read Less

Thoughts From a Fellow Yalie

For what it’s worth, here’s my brief remembrance.

I first met William F. Buckley, Jr., as a freshman at Yale University. It was at the 125th anniversary celebration of the Yale Daily News (which Buckley had edited, stirring all manner of controversy) and I was sitting in a large hall listening to a panel of former Newsies riff on their college days. Buckley and his son, Christopher, sat next to me by sheer chance.

After the panel, I introduced myself to Buckley and we chatted briefly on the state of politics on campus. He gave me his email address and requested that we stay in touch (we would keep up a very informal and infrequent correspondence). Later that evening, I bumped into Buckley at the News building, where he was inspecting old black-and-white photos of previous editorial boards, including his own. He mentioned that his wife was unable to attend the celebratory banquet that evening and that he had an extra ticket for a seat at his table. Would I care to join him? As Joseph Lieberman–a former editor of the News himself–said today in remarks on the Senate floor, Buckley took a “warm, brotherly interest” in those working for the paper, but I never expected this sort of gratifying and flattering attention. Sadly, I was in a theatrical performance, and there was no understudy. But, I assured myself, there would be other such occasions in the future.

Sadly, there weren’t.  But a different sort of opportunity to become acquainted with Buckley arrived my sophomore year, in the form of a position as a research assistant to Sam Tanenhaus, the New York Times editor who is working on what will be the definitive biography of the godfather of American conservatism. Buckley had deposited hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of personal correspondence, press clippings, and his own written work at the library of his alma mater, a collection that he updated on a continual basis. My job was to research his 1965 run for mayor of New York City, one of the most entertaining political bouts in recent American history and the subject of this 2005 Times Magazine essay by Tanenhaus.

Through that experience, it became clear that Buckley was what most of us writing for political magazines hope to be: a change agent. While it’s wrong to suggest that the conservative movement would not have existed without him, it surely, without his influence, would not have been the force–judged by both intellectual and political heft–it eventually became. It might seem paradoxical that the most influential conservative writer of the 20th century (standing athwart history yelling “Stop”) would be a “change agent.” But that’s what he was.

For what it’s worth, here’s my brief remembrance.

I first met William F. Buckley, Jr., as a freshman at Yale University. It was at the 125th anniversary celebration of the Yale Daily News (which Buckley had edited, stirring all manner of controversy) and I was sitting in a large hall listening to a panel of former Newsies riff on their college days. Buckley and his son, Christopher, sat next to me by sheer chance.

After the panel, I introduced myself to Buckley and we chatted briefly on the state of politics on campus. He gave me his email address and requested that we stay in touch (we would keep up a very informal and infrequent correspondence). Later that evening, I bumped into Buckley at the News building, where he was inspecting old black-and-white photos of previous editorial boards, including his own. He mentioned that his wife was unable to attend the celebratory banquet that evening and that he had an extra ticket for a seat at his table. Would I care to join him? As Joseph Lieberman–a former editor of the News himself–said today in remarks on the Senate floor, Buckley took a “warm, brotherly interest” in those working for the paper, but I never expected this sort of gratifying and flattering attention. Sadly, I was in a theatrical performance, and there was no understudy. But, I assured myself, there would be other such occasions in the future.

Sadly, there weren’t.  But a different sort of opportunity to become acquainted with Buckley arrived my sophomore year, in the form of a position as a research assistant to Sam Tanenhaus, the New York Times editor who is working on what will be the definitive biography of the godfather of American conservatism. Buckley had deposited hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of personal correspondence, press clippings, and his own written work at the library of his alma mater, a collection that he updated on a continual basis. My job was to research his 1965 run for mayor of New York City, one of the most entertaining political bouts in recent American history and the subject of this 2005 Times Magazine essay by Tanenhaus.

Through that experience, it became clear that Buckley was what most of us writing for political magazines hope to be: a change agent. While it’s wrong to suggest that the conservative movement would not have existed without him, it surely, without his influence, would not have been the force–judged by both intellectual and political heft–it eventually became. It might seem paradoxical that the most influential conservative writer of the 20th century (standing athwart history yelling “Stop”) would be a “change agent.” But that’s what he was.

Read Less

William F. Buckley, Jr.

Bill Buckley has died at the age of 82. This American original probably did more to transform the American ideological landscape in the second half of the twentieth century than any other writer or editor, and he did so with surpassing grace. We’ll have far more to say about this on CONTENTIONS as the day and week unfold.

Bill Buckley has died at the age of 82. This American original probably did more to transform the American ideological landscape in the second half of the twentieth century than any other writer or editor, and he did so with surpassing grace. We’ll have far more to say about this on CONTENTIONS as the day and week unfold.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.