Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley, an appreciation

I want to mark the passing of William F. Buckley, intellectual godfather of the modern conservative movement, who died on Tuesday night at the age of 82. But rather than offer the standard celebration of his wit and significance and contentious iconoclasm, I prefer to resurrect a long newspaper profile that I wrote about Buckley 22 years ago, around the time of his 60th birthday. I spent a delightful day with him in New York, and one of the last things he said to me - a quote which I used to close this article - now seems apt. "Heaven," he opined, "is a place where you cannot be unhappy."

If you don't know much about Buckley, here's one place to start. From the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17, 1986:


"Hhhaaa, hhhaaa, hhhaaa ..."

William F. Buckley Jr. was indulging his languorous laugh in the rear of his limousine as it whisked him through Central Park - past the cabbies with their caustic tongues and the vendors with their leather lungs.

Not one dissonant decibel intruded on Buckley's trip; the windows took care of that. With nary a nod at the world beyond the glass, the celebrity conservative sank into the cushions and pondered the meaning of life and death.

"I wouldn't want to be 30 again," said Buckley. "It's the exertion. It's the fatigue, too. It makes me think of the last letter Whittaker Chambers (the communist who became a conservative scholar) wrote to me before he died. 'I'm fatigued, Bill,' he said. 'It hasn't hit you, but it will. History has hit us like a freight train. We've tried to put ourselves together again, but at a price - weariness.' No, I couldn't bear to do it all again."

His immediate destination, on this April day, was a radio talk show - just another episode in the never-ending adventure of being Bill Buckley, of buffing and polishing the image of the aristocrat in overdrive, at turns affable and acidic, with nose tilted skyward as if straining to sniff the sea at Nantucket.

He just turned 60. His magazine, National Review, is now 30, and his TV show, Firing Line, is now 20 - both surviving in a world marred by what the magazine calls "liberal degeneracy." History, with its clash of ideologies, has hit him like a freight train, but he perseveres. His Cold War rhetoric still soars like a hawk. He still thinks some Americans are too dumb to deserve the vote. And now he thinks AIDS-virus carriers should be tattooed on their buttocks.

There are conservatives who say his influence has waned, but he has never been known to cede ground to his critics. He has a lust for the last word, and he will get it at all costs, as fecund dictums drop like overripe fruits from his darting tongue, and woe to the listener who cannot invoke the words of saints and scholars six centuries dead.

"I don't stoop to conquer," he quipped, while lounging in the radio station lobby. "I merely conquer."

As he spoke, his talk-show host was already on the air, announcing Buckley's arrival. The original plan was for Buckley to plug his latest spy novel, but instead the host was now telling listeners that his guest would be on to defend "the Buckley treatment" of AIDS carriers.

"Uh oh," said Buckley. "Did you hear that?" There was a glint in his eye, like a diamond turned toward the light, and he flashed a naughty grin that gave him the look of a schoolboy who'd just been caught clipping the wings off the family parakeet. He could hardly wait for the scolding to commence.


But one cannot say that Bill Buckley, with all his wealth and fame and friends in the White House, is a happy man. It's more complicated than that.

An hour before the radio show, he was ruminating on this in his Park Avenue maisonette, sipping coffee brought on a silver tray by a servant.

"You must screen 'happiness' through the Christian understanding of the word," he said. "In G.K. Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi, he concludes that St. Francis was happy when he died. But it was ambiguous whether St. Francis was happy due to a retrospective view of his life, or whether it was because he was nearing an imminent reunion with God. Happiness, in the form of a (temporal) 'high,' is not reconcilable with Christian orientation."

So to avoid melancholy, he just stays busy. He said, "I probably inherited that from my father, who was very successful and very industrious." Indeed, William Buckley Sr. was a self-made oil magnate and devout Catholic who loathed socialism and embraced elitism. ("The mass of people have not the ability to think clearly," he told a Senate panel in 1919, referring to a Mexican revolution that hurt his oil holdings.)

Young William wound up at Yale, where, upon graduation, he wrote a book charging that the teachers were anti-God and "collectivist" in their politics. In 1955, he founded National Review to provide a forum for right- wing thought - thus plowing the intellectual ground for a resurgent American conservatism. In 1966, he launched Firing Line, proving that conservatives can be witty, too. This was no small achievement; said Richard Brookhiser, a National Review colleague, "Buckley broke the liberal monopoly on style." At one point in 1971, during a taping break, he leaned over to a long-haired guest and whispered, "Hhhowww's the revolutionnnn?"

John Judis, who has spent 30 hours interviewing Buckley for a forthcoming biography, says: "Bill was brought up to be at odds with the outside world. There was a sense of being embattled. That's why Bill was best in the '50s and '60s, when he thought liberals controlled the country. I don't think he functions as well when things are going his way (politically)."

Nevertheless, Buckley remains vexed by much of modern life. After all, this is a man who plays harpsichord music on a tape deck while sailing the Atlantic. Back here on dry land, he complains that democracy has become . . . how shall he put it . . . debased.

"All you have to do is exist, at age 18, in order to get the vote," he lamented, sipping his coffee. Recalling an old poll, he said that "apparently 30 percent of the American people have never heard of the United Nations. I'd say those 30 percent are not ready to vote."

The cup was lowered to the silver tray. The eyes flashed, inviting a challenge. So it was suggested to him that the universal franchise is, by definition, a pillar of democracy. But he said, "You know, when the Statue of Liberty was erected 100 years ago, blacks were only nominally franchised, and women weren't franchised at all. And yet it didn't occur to a great many people that it was a fraud to hold her up as a symbol of liberty." Besides, too many voters care only about their "personal economic enhancement."

He cited Jose Ortega y Gasset - a Spanish philosopher who, in 1930, charged that "the masses" were debasing government and the arts. This was no surprise; Ortega y Gasset has long influenced him. As Buckley now put it, ''Ortega said the sin of the masses was their remoteness from their own patrimony. People get all these books to read, beautiful pictures to look at, beautiful music to listen to - but without awakening in them a sense of reciprocity. We have to do something for society in return."

Minutes later, he was bound for his limousine, knotting a rep tie around his throat in midstride. Ah yes, the limousine. When he first wrote about this car three years ago - about its dual-control air conditioning ("for driver and driven") and its palatial proportions - his critics howled, and a Buckley friend had to explain to the puzzled pundit that a limo is an offensive symbol to the average urbanite.

But Buckley cherishes his custom-made cocoon. He composes letters on the Dictaphone. He makes calls on the telephone. In short, he stays busy; he does not permit quietude in his life, because what he fears most, he says, is the thought, which might steal upon him in an unguarded moment of contemplation, that he has somehow failed to measure up in the eyes of his Maker.

All of which prompted former Sen. Eugene McCarthy to quip, on a recent Firing Line, that, "When I first met Bill, he was pursuing God. God's been running from him ever since."



He greeted the talk-show callers as if they were old schoolmates joining him on a sailing cruise. But many were not amused by him. They'd just heard Buckley insist that AIDS-virus carriers be tattooed. "I suggest the buttocks and the upper forearm," he told his host, Barry Gray. "Matter of fact, you might call this a gay right." Healthy gays, he said, had a right to be protected.

He fenced effortlessly with his choleric callers - until one woman declared: "There were tattoos in Germany in World War II, and it doesn't seem right. . . ."

"I honestly resent that," he broke in. "I do wish you'd be a little more sensitive." Later, in the downbound elevator, the barb still smarted. "I'm sensitive about that (a Nazi analogy)" he muttered. "People should guard against that." When Gore Vidal made a similar analogy in 1969, Buckley sued and won.

Outside, his limo was waiting on West 56th Street, right where it was supposed to be. The next stop would be a restaurant; intellectual Irving Kristol and New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal were waiting. That night, he was due at a party for his spy novel. The next day, he would introduce a Mozart concert.

His is the life of a gadabout, and not everyone is charmed. Garry Wills, the writer, who got his start at National Review, calls Buckley "a dandy" who is "applauded for striking poses." Biographer Judis says, "He goes very fast on the surface of life, and he doesn't try to figure out what it all means."

"Not many people have spent more time than I have, writing on a central theme, and have seen a change in the political climate," Buckley said of his critics, as the mute traffic slid by the window. "I'm not uniquely responsible for that change, but I certainly had something to do with it. So for people to say they think of me as a sailor or a showman is the lazy way out."

He boasts that he writes his column in 20 minutes; critics say it reads that way. But he sees no reason to slow his pace. "Boredom is an enemy," he said. "When Sir Harold Nicholson (the English historian) was 75, his friends gave him a gift of a voyage on a steamer. But he wound up writing a book, because he couldn't find relaxation by spread-eagling himself to the sky."

Besides, there's still so much to take umbrage about. For one thing, he said, "the public sector is still marching." For another, too many gays ("sexual aberrants") are spreading disease. Too many people, even churchmen, are making moral judgments about nuclear weapons, whereas what's really important is to "risk death in pursuit of Christian life." And he can no longer lecture to high-schoolers, he confesses, because "I'm not particularly skilled at picking up their idiom."

As for being happy, he prefers to await the afterlife. "Heaven," he said, as the limo pulled up to the restaurant, "is a place where you cannot be unhappy. When I was a schoolboy in England, a Jesuit told us about an old lady who once told him, 'If my dog Fifi can't go to heaven, I won't be happy there.' He then said to her, 'If it's really true you won't be happy without Fifi, then that means he'll be there.' But, don't you see, he was implying that she might not even need the dog once she got there. Hhhaaa, hhhaaa, hhhaaa!"

But until then, he will content himself with his sailing - a master of his fate on timeless waters where the freight train of history cannot intrude. "It gives you such a strange sense of power," he said, oh so seductively. "You decide on the course, you decide what to do in a storm. It is such a distinct sensation, really, to be totally in charge of one's own destiny."