February 27, 2008

The death of William F. Buckley, Jr., is, for me at least, the closing of a chapter in my own history, both personal and ideological. Buckley, you see, was my childhood hero.

His magazine, the National Review, was available in our Junior High School library—along with The New Republic, The Nation, and even American Opinion (!)—and I read it regularly, as soon as the new issue came in. Nurtured on Frank S. Meyer’s essays, and Buckley’s acerbic commentary, I was part and parcel of the Goldwater movement in my own small way, and I idolized the youthful and articulate Buckley, who often appeared on television. Here was an intellectual, who was, at the same time, a man of the Right: back then, an almost inconceivable phenomenon. Buckley, with his formidable erudition, and his ready wit, was a kind of intellectual father figure for me: although I never met him, he was a kind of model. While I never succumbed to the temptation to imitate his languid style, complete with impish smiles and heavy-lidded eyes, he did inspire me to read the dictionary, from beginning to end, in search of words with which to impress my friends and correspondents.

It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of National Review for the young conservatives of the 1960s: there was no other magazine, no other center of intellectual nourishment, for us, but then none was needed. NR was quite enough. That’s because there was no party line, no neoconservative enforcers of the Frummian variety, no partisan sensibility that distorted the editors’ always sharp analysis of what we, as conservatives, ought to do, say, and think about this or that, no looking over one’s shoulder. In the pages of NR the intellectual heavyweights—Meyer, Russell Kirk, and the like—battled it out: Liberty versus Order, Fusionism versus Traditionalism, Rollback versus Containment. The Big Issues, and all very appealing to a callow youth in search of answers and intellectual adventure. And not all politics all the time, either, but columns on the arts, on travel, on matters great and small that revealed a much wider world than the suburban desert in which I lived, that gave me a hint at what life had to offer if only I kept up by subscription to NR—and a dictionary by my side.

National Review, in the old days, was an education, all by itself, and I graduated from its school, so to speak, a confirmed man-child of the Right. For that, I can only thank Bill Buckley, no matter what his latter-day sins. I shall not make the mistake he made, and use an obituary to pick a quarrel, or settle an old score. I will merely note that the National Review he founded ceased to exist around about the late 1970s, when the neocons came to prominence. I fondly remember an entire issue given over to the alleged “libertarian threat” represented by the Cato Institute and its intellectual satellites, which prominently mentioned one of my more leftish-sounding articles as proof positive that libertarians were and are a dangerous conspiracy out to smash the American State—a piece that presciently noted the separatist tendencies of the American Southwest, and its future de facto merger with Mexico. That I was celebrating this prospect, and not simply forewarning it, is why Ernest van den Haag (I think it was) found the article alarming. I was thrilled, nevertheless, to have been mentioned in the magazine-of-record of my childhood—a thrill that was long gone when the thuggish David Frum took up the cudgels again many years later.

Alas, by that time, NR was no longer even a caricature of its old self: the red-state fascist maunderings of Frum and his fellow neocons had long since taken the sizzle-and-pizazz out of the mag, and it was merely the Pravda of the Party-Liners, a slave to Party and Dogma.

I have to add, however, that Buckley appeared to have second thoughts about relegating his legacy—his magazine, that is, and the mantle of “mainstream” conservatism—to the War Party. This piece, acknowledging that the Iraq war—and the greater project of “transforming” the Middle East at gunpoint—was and is a failure did not go down easily with the neocons, who didn’t dare grumble all that audibly when it came out. Buckley’s intellectual honesty prevented him from swallowing the Party Line, and his stature on the Right stopped the David Frums of this world from declaring him an “unpatriotic conservative” on account of his realistic dissent.

So let us mourn the passing of good ol’ Bill Buckley, who, for all his flaws, managed a signal achievement: when statist liberalism was the only known alternative to socialism, his bright repartee lit up the intellectual darkness and attracted us intellectually adventurous youth to a counter-culture that would come to challenge the heretofore unchallengeable status quo. To his soul, I tip my hat and say: God speed, and thanks.


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