To be honest, I haven’t read much by William F. Buckley, Jr., nor did I watch Firing Line all that often. I first heard of William F. Buckley when my mom bought me a copy of his book, Up from Liberalism. I was just a kid, so I really didn’t understand much of what he was saying. I knew that I was a conservative because I liked the speeches of Ronald Reagan, with all their talk about freedom and liberty and low taxes and limited government. But Buckley used too many big words for my taste, and I did not have the patience to look them up in the dictionary.
There were some aspects of his book that I clearly understood. He showed that liberals use many of the same tactics that they decry as McCarthyite (e.g., blacklisting, guilt by association, etc.), and he argued against Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s big government spending projects. But, at the time, I wasn’t overly gifted at seeing how various parts of a book can function together to make a coherent argument. For example, in his discussion on civil rights, he noted that many of the states that voted for the Fourteenth Amendment also supported segregated schools in their own regions, so he seemed to deny that segregation contradicted the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment. But he also included a moving story from a source about Jesus coming back to earth and opposing segregation. And then there was another line in his book in which he said, “Some people say that the government can’t do anything right. It sure can arrest the Communists, can it?” So I wasn’t entirely sure if he agreed with the concept of limited government in that line or not, even though he definitely embraced it in other parts of the book.
That was my problem with reading him: you had to pay extra close attention to understand his argument. I preferred a binary system of thinking: conservatives are the good guys, liberals are the bad guys, and government should consign itself to a bare minimum. When I reread Up from Liberalism years later, he came across more as a binary thinker. Yet, my old impression of him frequently resurfaced when I read his columns or watched Firing Line on occasion. He never reminded me of Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes, I asked myself after reading his column, “So how’s this guy a conservative? That column wasn’t exactly rah-rah Bush!” And, one time on Firing Line, he seemed to dispute the notion that AIDS was God’s punishment on homosexuals. After all, he asked, why would God single out homosexuals while ignoring other sinners? He had a point there. Overall, he struck me as different from other conservatives I read or listened to on the radio: he appeared to have a grasp on nuances.
He also came across to me as an intellectual elitist. That’s just my judgmentalism speaking, but he always struck me as an Ivory Tower sort of personality who was always up for a game of Squash (whatever that is). I was surprised when I saw Archie Bunker praising him on All in the Family, for Buckley always struck me as a conservative Meathead. But his urbanity sometimes served him well, in my opinion. I once watched a clip in which he cussed out his liberal co-host Gore Vidal, and he didn’t exactly appear to be a gutter mouth. He still looked and sounded urbane, even though trash was coming out of his lips.
But I think that I should read more of Buckley. There have been times when I’ve read pieces of Firing Line transcripts, and I admire his willingness to take on all kinds of liberals, from Michael Harrington to Jesse Jackson. He had a grasp of the nuances, and that led him to question liberal assumptions.
At times, his articles did appear to be simple, and I liked that. When the Cold War was drawing to a close, I gravitated to that part of the right that warned, “Not so fast! Don’t trust that Commie Gorbachev. He may appear nice, but underneath that friendly exterior is just another Communist dictator who wants to rule the world. Don’t let your guard down, Ron! Keep building those nukes and arming the Contras.” And Buckley had articles that expressed that sort of line, so I cut them out and put them in my article collection. But Reagan turned out to be right, while Buckley and I ended up being wrong. Oh well. There’s still nothing wrong with a little caution. Even Reagan said “Trust but verify.”
Sometimes, his books made me draw opposite conclusions from what he may have intended. For example, when I was a kid, I read God and Man at Yale, which had a chapter on how these liberal professors at Yale were indoctrinating their students. I agreed with him on the seriousness of that problem, but, when he mentioned one professor who made fun of Christians for consigning all of the philosophers to hell, my reaction was: “That’s not very nice of Christians, is it? Those philosophers had some profound thoughts.” Years later, I learned that the professor was only partially correct: some Christians didn’t think much of the philosophers, but others did.
When I read Up from Liberalism a second time, when I had just started my Ph.D. program, new things stuck out to me. Buckley appeared to be a critic of democracy, for he did not believe that something was right just because a majority happened to vote for it. But he did favor freedom, individual rights, and smaller government. He just seemed to believe that democracy could contradict those virtues. And he has a point. A lot of socialistic countries in the world are democracies, believe it or not.
There is one book I have that I have not yet read. It is William F. Buckley, Jr.: The Pied Piper of the Establishment, by John F. McManus of the John Birch Society. McManus’ argument is that Buckley was an establishment plant whose job was to turn conservatism away from its roots of limited government and a non-interventionist foreign policy. McManus also documents several liberal positions that Buckley held, on such issues as abortion, pornography, and giving away the Panama Canal (an issue that Buckley debated with Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly). It is worth reading, but I have always been puzzled about why an anti-Communist organization such as the John Birch Society embraced a non-interventionist foreign policy during the height of the Cold War. It didn’t even like NATO! I mean, we were intervening in other countries to fight Communism, right?
Buckley himself wrote a book that I would like to read. It is a fictional work about the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand. Buckley was a critic of both of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he admired certain aspects of what they said and did. In its heyday, the John Birch Society was effective at organizing masses of people around a cause. And Ayn Rand was entertaining to watch on talk shows, especially when she put down liberals with her caustic, opinionated wit. I doubt that Buckley’s book presents them as evil. It probably just views them as an ideological dead end.
So I’m not exactly the biggest Buckley fan on the face of the earth. Why, then, am I writing about him? First, I feel that this is the only opportunity I will have to write about his life, since a person’s death provides the best chance for that kind of reflection. I’m not ready to write this post because there is so much that I’d like to read both by and about him. He’s still a mystery to me. But, unfortunately, he didn’t wait to die before I could learn more about him.
Second, I feel as if I stand on his shoulders. I am a conservative, after all, and he was one of the movers and shakers of the conservative movement, long before conservatism became “cool.” He helped set the groundwork for conservatives to enter the media and politics, for he brought conservatism into national circulation. For that, I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Today, even liberals admire Bill Buckley, for they see him as an exemplar of a higher form of debate. Buckley himself seemed to reject that kind of admiration, especially when liberals contrasted him with popular conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Buckley told Rush that he actually approved of his work. Still, the liberals have a point, for Buckley exemplified behavior that should characterize national discourse: state your point of view, focus on arguments, engage your opponents, try not to personally attack those with differing positions (though personalities did enter his writing, for that is often unavoidable).
He’s still a mystery to me, yet I owe him a special thank you. For some reason, I feel like we lost a giant today.