February 29, 2008
With the passing of William F. Buckley I now feel officially old. Like thousands of modern conservatives, I grew up on Buckley. Each Sunday, I would make sure to be at home for Firing Line, to watch him genially make mincemeat of the likes of Harriet Pilpel—one of the generation of nice old babuschkas who somehow (unaccountably to me) became architects of a culture of death. Or to watch Buckley pick the brain of the aged, elfin Malcolm Muggeridge—an ex-Communist who became (something of a Jansenist) Catholic, whose books I promptly ran out to buy, and essays to read in the Human Life Review—which was published out of the old offices of National Review. I remember my first visit to those offices—which seemed to me hallowed—to meet with the grand, pipe-smoking Jim McFadden, patriarch of the pro-life movement. I’ll never forget the giant painting of Kaiser Franz Josef that hung on his wall. It was McFadden who put me in touch with a saint: Fr. John Hardon—whose graduate classes in theology I’d hitchhike to sit in on, to make up for what I wasn’t learning in high school religion class. I’d haunt the public library every two weeks to see when NR would come out, to read the brilliant essays of Thomas Molnar, Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn, and Joseph Sobran. Around the old offices of NR—situated, I remember, just down the block from a haunted-looking Swedenborgian church—an entire intellectual sub-culture of (mostly Catholic) activists and authors centered, much of it supported by the lasting heritage of Cardinals Spellman and Cooke. Indeed, one the best things about NYC is that it has never had a really evil archbishop—and consequently, much more than Chicago or Los Angeles, still retains an infrastructure of old-style ethnic Catholicism.
The authors I found in NR I promptly followed up on, and their longer works helped to form me, and thousands of others, as thinkers and writers. Indeed, as many liberals used to observe, it was Buckley’s very public eloquence and slightly showy vocabulary that helped dispel in the popular mind the idea that conservatives were the “stupid” party. (In reality, it was Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind that established the existence of a serious tradition of thinking on the Right on this side of the ocean. But perceptions matter too, and Buckley helped to change them.) I remember the lesson I drew for my own writing from Buckley’s example. As a freshman journalist at Yale, I reflected that Buckley never actually seemed to persuade any of the liberals who read him. But he demanded and got their respect, and inspired young people like me with the knowledge that we were not alone, or out of our minds. So I resolved that my writing on politics would have to be done at a higher level, displaying (perhaps a bit ostentatiously) a level of learning and thought that would at least intimidate the liberals into taking me seriously. As to winning them over—perhaps by inching ever closer in their direction, showing that we shared common premises, but different means—that seemed a waste of time. Perhaps even dangerous.
Overall, I think this lesson was the right one—as the subsequent career of National Review has helped to prove. As the old lions of its staff died, retired, withdrew, or were driven off, the magazine seemed to slide imperceptibly away from Buckley’s old approach of responding to leftist contempt by brazening it out, and proving itself smarter and more principled, regardless of consequence. It became, in a term that I know would pain Buckley to read, populist. Also much less discernibly Catholic. Its sales inched up. It advertised on talk radio, and began to read every more like Rush Limbaugh’s books than Russell Kirk’s. Perhaps this was inevitable. But I can’t help finding it sad.
I wish that Buckley’s legacy better represented his own work at his best. (But few magazines hold up such a high level of quality for so long. Compare the Time magazine of 1955 with what is published under that name today. It seems like the special-ed edition.) I am glad to know that he died in the Church we he so often defended so eloquently, his mater if not always his magistra. I gratefully acknowledge his central significance to me and a generation of my fellow conservatives. And so it is with regret that must point out that without his magazine’s relentless support, the Bush administration would not have found it politically possible to invade Iraq. Which means that there is another large group of Americans whose lives were deeply affected by William F. Buckley, Jr. You can read their names here. Let us pray for his soul along with theirs:
Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla
Iudicandus homo reus;
Huic ergo parce, Deus.
Pie Iesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem.