William F. Buckley 1925-2008: Wrongheaded, But Did Media Right

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On the whole, Buckley's politics were terribly wrong about society and how it should be run. However,…

by Mike Mosher

William F. Buckley was considered the epitome of expository style in my house when I was growing up, for the conservative commentator, publisher and well-heeled political organizer was deservedly famous for a rich vocabulary. Born to wealth from his father's oil holdings in Mexico and Venezuela, he was schooled as a child in Paris and London, then prep school in Millbrook, New York. While studying at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), he was recruited for the CIA by E.Howard Hunt--a man convicted as Watergate burglar and thought by some to be an assassin of John F. Kennedy.

Buckley then attended Yale University and, upon graduation, wrote a book decrying its secularism and tolerance of radicals. He then co-wrote one with his brother-in-law that defended Senator Joseph McCarthy. He began publishing the magazine National Review in 1955, whose editors included former Trotskyist James Burnham and traditionalist English Professors Russell Kirk and Jeffrey Hart. In one early editorial, Buckley supported white supremacy in the southern US, but in a few months reversed himself to renounce it and racism. In a LOOK magazine piece he called for a black US President by 1980, though he wanted a conservative one. He opposed the antisemitism of pre-WWII conservatism, and encouraged Jewish contributors to the magazine, including regular religion columnist Will Herberg. Though strongly anticommunist, in the 1960s he denounced the John Birch Society. Beyond writing, Buckley helped found the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), conservative campus activists. He supported the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, and helped his brother Jim win a seat as US Senator from New York. Buckley himself ran for mayor of New York city, and advocated bike lanes and tolls for cars in Manhattan.

Buckley was a bon vivant who enjoyed life and the arts. He once accompanied Marian McPartland in duets on the radio show "Piano Jazz" and once played harpsichord on Conan O' Brien's show. In addition to collections of his columns and essays, he wrote ten novels of CIA adventure, and narratives of sailing his boat, upon which he once smoked dope in international waters (so he wasn't breaking US laws) and wrote some newspaper columns about it. He ultimately advocated drug legalization, on libertarian grounds. Wikipedia contributors note Buckley's independent streak, how he wrote that Bush was a failed President, and how if Bush was Prime Minister of any European nation he would have resigned or retired long ago. Buckley deemed the invasion and occupation of Iraq as anything but conservatism, but wimpily stopped short of opposing it. His wife, a chain smoker, died at age 80 after 60 years of cigarettes, and when he discovered he too had emphysema, wrote that he wished America would outlaw smoking.

On the whole, Buckley's politics were terribly wrong about society and how it should be run. Conservatism preserves privilege and property, from the vantage point of an elite keeping the laboring majority at bay. In our time the philosophy is a classical, lovely garment that both flatters and conceals corporate power and its constant abuses. The "free market" that Milton Friedman lauded resulted in deindustrialization of the US and degradation of local agriculture in Mexico, Africa and elsewhere. But William F. Buckley--lampooned by Lily Tomlin on "Saturday Night Live" as "William Fuhbuckley"--can be appreciated, in this time of pitbull pundits and talk-show primadonnas on Fox, CNN and MSNBC, as a decent and respectable figure, literally a host of his political talk show "Firing Line", which ran for 33 years on PBS.

Buckley would talk convivially and intelligently about the ideas of his guests with them in his creamy aristocratic voice. His first guest on the show was the socialist Norman Thomas, and a discussion with Noam Chomsky can be found online. Beyond various politicians and conservative theorists, Buckley hosted shows featuring Norman Mailer, Jorge Luis Borges, James Baldwin, Christopher Hitchens (when he was a man of the left), antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy, and Germaine Greer. In a 1981 New York Times piece on the show's 15th anniversary, John Kenneth Galbraith quipped "Firing Line' is one of the rare occasions when you have a chance to correct the errors of the man who's interrogating you.''

Paradoxically, while corporate America was repressing antiwar dissenters with police billy clubs and (in the case of the Panthers or Kent State students) guns blazing, network television occasionally let them speak their mind, uninterrupted--except by commercials every fifteen minutes--to a viewership in the tens of millions. Buckley said that he did not invite communists, yet somehow I remember seeing Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis and Black Panther Bobby Seale interviewed about 1970. If it wasn't by Buckley, it was by some other TV gentleman, for in those days controversial thinkers were given respectful, serious time on the talk shows of Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett and even Johnny Carson.

Yet there was a limit to Buckley's insouciance. In August,1968 Buckley and Gore Vidal were flown to the Democratic Convention in Chicago to comment upon it from the right and left, like David Brooks and Jim Shields on PBS today. At one point Vidal, nonchalantly and snidely, called Buckley a “crypto Nazi”. Buckley rose out of his chair, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I will sock you in your goddamn face, and you will stay plastered." Vidal squared off against him, and only the commentator Howard K. Smith imploring "Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" stopped them from fisticuffs. To this bookish pre-teen, those smart guys cussing and ready to fight--while the Chicago police riot raged outside their hotel--was by far the most exciting thing I'd ever seen on TV. Each of 'em sued and countersued, then wrote pieces about it for Esquire magazine. Vidal's essay implied that the teenaged Buckley brothers had been arsonists, after a home in their hometown Stamford, Connecticut had been sold to Jews.

After John McLaughlin first appeared on national TV in the early 1980s, the die had been cast for conservative television or radio hosts to be attack dogs, mauling their hapless "guests". I wonder what Buckley really thought of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill Cunningham, as well as the notoriously unsubtle George W. Bush. Of course, Buckley was the kind of conservative to whom you'd want to vociferously express your disagreement at positions he held that were clearly horseshit and long proven damaging to our nation and world. Yet I bet he was one media rightwinger who wouldn't leave you feeling like a punching bag after appearing on his show. I suspect, from the best of his prose, that William F. Buckley was a genuine guy who would probably serve you fine single malt whiskey while thanking you for your time. May he bequeath to his ugly political confreres his civility.

Life's rude lessons roiled, raged and liftedMike Mosher from the depths of conservativism to empyrean Bad Subjects.

Copyright © Mike Mosher 2008. Drawing © Mike Mosher 2008. All rights reserved.

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