Sunday, March 02, 2008

William F. Buckley

The man who several of his fellow pundits dubbed "The Father of Modern Conservatism" died last week. I first encountered William F. Buckley as a television commentator during the 1968 Democratic convention. Still an undergraduate, I was not far removed from my first encounter with J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye; and Buckley, with his New York Brahmin dialect and polysyllabic vocabulary, struck me as a flesh and blood example of what the fictional Holden Caulfield called a "phony."

When I began to read Buckley's opinions, which he produced prolifically, I was horrified. His support for the late Senator McCarthy, the late General Franco and -- most importantly -- the late Jim Crow, struck me as instances of what Orwell called "the defense of the indefensible." Siding with Southern segregationists after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, Buckley wrote, "The central question that emerges. . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes -- the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race."

Even though Buckley spoke in the same cadences as Franklin Roosevelt and he flashed the same winning smile, he spoke for what Roosevelt called the "economic royalists." In fact, in the pages of National Review, Buckley declared war on the New Deal; and he considered Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, who had come to terms with Roosevelt's legacy -- leaving in place its tax structure and building the interstate highway system -- traitors to the cause.

But as an old university debater, I found myself tuning into the many debates Buckley held on his long running PBS program, Firing Line. What struck me most was the people Buckley invited to support the opposing side. Noam Chomsky, John Kenneth Galbraith and Senator Gary Hart regularly crossed swords Buckley; and the quality of debate was stellar. It wasn't long before I read that Buckley and Galbraith -- the fervent anti-New Dealer and the passionate New Dealer -- were good friends. Clearly, Buckley did not let politics get in the way of friendship. He could get inside the heads of his opponents and see the world from their perspective -- or, as Robert B. Semple wrote last week in the New York Times, "He hated most of what the liberals stood for. He didn't hate them."

Unfortunately, even though he could get inside his opponents' heads, he never learned the trick which Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, suggested that his daughter Scout learn: to get inside someone's skin and walk around in it. One suspects that Buckley found that trick simply unseemly. If Buckley had truly understood what "separate but equal" meant for someone whose skin was black, he never would have thrown in his lot with Strom Thurmond and George Wallace.

He did manage to get inside Ronald Reagan's skin, though; and Reagan's victory represented the triumph of Modern Conservatism. Reagan, the economist Milton Friedman, and Buckley were the most important spokesmen for that program. And we, in North America, have been living with the consequences of their success for nearly thirty years.

The last eight years have seen the fracturing of the coalition of national security conservatives, social conservatives and religious conservatives which Buckley helped build. He has watched the neoconservatives under George W. Bush destroy that coalition and bastardize the ideas for which he stood. Of Bush's invasion of Iraq, Buckley wrote "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed;" and he suggested that Bush administration policy going forward should be based on "acknowledgement of defeat." The Iraq War was, said Buckley, "anything but conservative."

Buckley's recognition of the disaster in Iraq was proof that he could change his mind. He told Michael Kinsley some years after his editorial declaring that southern whites were "the advanced race" that he had misunderstood the civil rights movement; and, having initially supported Richard Nixon for president, he eventually called for Nixon's resignation. Unlike the present occupant of the White House, Buckley could admit his own fallibility.

I found little to admire about Buckley's politics. But his insistence that politics was about ideas -- and that it was also about incisive and civil discussion -- should live long after his passing. Unfortunately, many of his successors on the right, like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, seemed to have missed that lesson. One can hope that it is a lesson which will not be lost on the next generation.

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