Buckley's 'Miles Gone By': A life story that is history

The Argument

The intellectual force that brought U.S. conservatism to life surveys his years.


July 18, 2004|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

As a rule, journalists don't make history -- they merely record it. But if any journalist has earned the right to be called a historic figure, it's William F. Buckley Jr., who founded National Review in 1955. Before that time, conservatism in America had been not a movement but a jumble of far-flung individuals whose views were dismissed as hopelessly irrelevant by the liberal establishment.

Buckley started NR (as the magazine is known) to serve as a rallying point for conservatives who longed, in his oft-quoted words, to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." It did just that, and then some. A quarter-century later, Ronald Reagan, a charter subscriber who was still a Democrat when NR was launched, became president, having run on a platform all but indistinguishable from that of the magazine he read from cover to cover.

No other American journalist in our time has done anything so consequential, and such a man deserves to have his story told often and well, preferably in his own words. But at 78, Buckley has determined not to write "a formal autobiography," and Sam Tanenhaus, his designated biographer, has temporarily deserted his post to edit the New York Times Book Review.

So in lieu of a memoir, the prolific Buckley has brought out a self-anthology of previously published "scenes and essays in which I figure directly -- a narrative survey of my life, at work and play." Delightfully readable in its own right, Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography (Regnery, 572 pages, $29.95) also does much to explain how Bill Buckley -- as everybody calls him -- made so lasting an impression on American life.

Younger readers who only know Buckley the urbane elder statesman probably don't realize that, in his heyday, he was a full-fledged celebrity who made the cover of Time and was sought after by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. Firing Line, his own PBS talk show, and "On the Right," his syndicated newspaper column, made him the prototype for today's cable-TV opinion merchants -- though his sharp-witted repartee had little in common with the raucous gabble that now dominates the airwaves. Instead, he held the stage through a combination of stylish prose and impish charm.

Both qualities are on display throughout Miles Gone By, in which Buckley discourses on everything from the joys of his well-stocked wine cellar ("I comply with the biblical injunctions against greed by making it a hard-and-fast rule never to pay excessive prices for wine") to the unforeseen hazards of public speaking ("No matter what they tell you, between the time when they pick you up at your motel and the time they return you to your motel, a minimum of five hours will have elapsed").

Far from being a political monomaniac, he has lived a life of seemingly impossible fullness. How many magazine editors have played a Bach harpsichord concerto in public? Or written a series of best-selling spy novels? Or run for mayor of New York?

Buckley's charm is no trivial matter. It was central to his impact as a public figure. Back in the '50s, conservatism was widely viewed as the philosophy of selfish, wizened old crocks whom time had passed by. The notion that a conservative might be both young and likable was all but inconceivable, and Buckley first drew a crowd out of sheer novelty value.

Lured into the tent by his amiable manner, many Americans listened to what he had to say, and found it worth hearing. The same amiability helped him to hold together a magazine written by a gaggle of gifted but notoriously difficult right-wing intellectuals who liked picking fights with one another at least as much as with liberals.

Buckley himself was never an original thinker, nor did he claim to be. He left that job to his more philosophically minded colleagues, preferring to transplant their ideas to the realm of action, and his columns and essays, collected in books bearing such droll titles as The Jeweler's Eye and The Governor Listeth, introduced a generation of readers to the principles of applied conservatism. Many of them had first seen him holding forth on TV in the archly polysyllabic manner that comedians of the day loved to mimic -- but on paper, they discovered, he had an unrivaled gift of getting to the point.

All these things are chronicled, or at least mentioned, in Miles Gone By. But the Bill Buckley enshrined therein is as much the private man as the public figure, the lifelong enthusiast who loves nothing more than to share his passions, be they political or personal.

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