50 years of rich provocation from William F. Buckley Jr.

On Books

May 07, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

I cannot insist on credible objectivity in talking about William F. Buckley Jr. I have known him, professionally and personally, for many years. I have eaten at his generous and provident table, and he has graced mine.

I confess: Buckley is a pal. I have read his work -- though far from all of that immense output -- from the first rock he pitched into the American intellectual pond, "God and Man at Yale," in 1951. But meanwhile, in my writing over the last 30 years I have more often differed with Buckley than agreed with him.

That said, I believe that Bill Buckley's work has been the most intelligently argued, provocatively presented, morally grounded and ethically instructed catalyst to serious thought in America in the second half of the 20th century.

Now comes a book -- Buckley's 50-somethingth -- that puts the sweep and evolution of that thought into one very convenient basket. It is "Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches, with new commentary by the author" (Forum/Prima, 608 pages, $30).

There is a tendency among Buckley's most adoring enthusiasts to envision him on the summit of a modern-day Mount Sinai.

Their construct is that Buckley brought down from the pinnacle the principles of modern conservatism. He persevered. America slowly paid heed. This created the Goldwater Revelation, which grew into the Reagan Revolution. The world paid heed. That restored Western democracy to economic vibrancy. As a consequence, down came the Soviet Union and its pawns and playthings. All were reduced to a sputtering, incandescent heap of the smashed idols of Marx, Lenin & Co. All thanks to Bill Buckley.

I find that more than a trifle too linear. But I am certain that any open-minded reader of this book -- however liberal of leaning or bent -- will be startled by its cumulative impact. Beyond Buckley, it dramatizes powerfully the importance over 50 years of the role of sound ideas being well reasoned. Earnest intellect, the human mind, turned out to be vastly more powerful than nuclear -- and all other --weapons. Buckley was way ahead or at the forefront all along.

This has not made his insights popular with hard-core liberals or the academic left.

What many of those opponents hold to be Buckley's lack of sufficient social sentimentality is more than made up for in civility. I have never met anyone -- except perhaps for Gore Vidal -- who knows Buckley as a person and is not genuinely fond of him.

That natural warmth and generosity of spirit shine out of this volume. A sequential reading of Buckley's observations suggests an essence. What people from the outer reaches of American liberalism take to be Buckley's brutish Darwinism emerges more truly as a heroically humane skepticism toward political -- and social and spiritual -- patent medicines.

The first speech published here was his Class Day Oration at Yale, on June 11, 1950. The last was given at the Heritage Foundation's 25th anniversary dinner on Oct. 20, 1999. Ninety-two come in between. To each, Buckley has added a brisk introductory passage. The final one proudly includes a delightfully affectionate introduction by Buckley's son, Christopher.

The introduction to the first speech sets, as do many others, the historic and personal context of the original delivery. Back in 1950, there was a pandemic enthusiasm for big government and social engineering, ornamented by an affection for the aspirations of the Soviet Union that could be hardly imaginable today.

Though he would become edgier -- even, I might argue, a trifle more staccato -- as a half-century moved along, here as he graduated from college was early classic Buckley: "Our greatest efforts must nevertheless be spent, it seems to me, in preserving the framework that supports the vaster bounties that make our country an oasis of freedom and prosperity."

There was lots to come.

What connoisseur of eloquence could resist the ritualized combat of the now legendary debate in Chicago on Sept. 22, 1962, between Norman Mailer and Buckley -- whose opening statement is here and includes: "I do not know anyone whose dismay I personally covet more, because it is clear from reading the works of Mr. Mailer that only demonstrations of human swinishness are truly pleasing to him, truly confirm his vision of a world gone square. Pleasant people, like those of us on the right wing, drive him mad and leech his genius."

But, entertaining as much of this stuff is, Buckley is far from just an entertainer. I would argue, to take but one of many moral examples, that he is the driving force behind the presently enduring truth that anti-Semitism, even in cryptic nuance, is unacceptable within the world of American conservatism. There are evidences of that influence in some of these speeches, but, more usefully, go to Buckley's "In Search of Anti-Semitism" (Continuum, 207 pages, 1992). I would argue that is the most important single book that should be read by any thinking person seriously concerned with that pernicious poison.

Its core is a massive essay Buckley wrote in National Review in 1991. Its wisdom and scholarship are considerably nourished by accompanying letters, essays and columns of response.

But for a broader -- the broadest -- tour of Buckley's work, turn to the speeches.

Have sound political reasoning and intellectual courage in the last 50 years vastly improved the lots and lives of more than half the population of this planet? Of course. Did William F. Buckley Jr., standing alone, contrive that reasoning and exhibit that courage? No. But this book does a superbly instructive job of retracing his formidable contributions, enriching half a century.

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