How Bill Buckley saved western civilization

Posted: Aug 22, 2000 12:00 AM
One thing and another ... The world turns, weeks go by, and pretty soon you see you've bypassed one of the year's top political and cultural stories -- a story without visible relationship to Al Gore vs. George Bush. Nevertheless, we might ponder in this post-convention interval a story with an invisible relationship. The story is of William F. Buckley Jr.'s recession, duly announced, from public life -- or just from public view -- as he concludes a lifetime of speaking, arguing, debating and interviewing. It should be clear that no professional obituary is under construction here. Our brother Buckley is going nowhere, got that? He continues to produce an elegant newspaper column every three or four days. A new spy novel -- about our own Cold War superspook, James Jesus Angleton -- is in book stores now: the 39th Buckley volume in 50 years. What's the story, then? "Seventy-Four-Year-Old Guy Slows Down?" It's a bit more than that. You could say it has to do with the presidential election, in that just when our brother Buckley launched his speaking career during the Eisenhower years, no presidential ticket would for a moment have spoken of its program as compassionately "conservative'' -- or anything else "conservative.'' The principles of conservatism were too shameful: economic liberty, small government, reverence for the past. It took decades of conscientious banging away in public places, some large, many obscure, to finally knock down that worm-eaten way of thinking. WFB's National Review magazine, founded in 1955, set the terms of the intellectual debate, but it was the speeches and the Firing Line debates and discussions that rallied the front-line troops. In all this, the power of the spoken word was evident. There was a crackle to Buckley events -- an esprit-evoking sassiness. I invite you to think of us poor, helpless college students back there in the Dark Ages -- encased, as if by packing peanuts, in the orthodoxy of the time, the orthodoxy of well-meaning liberalism. The liberals I recall from those days weren't bad people, they just had this tendency to smile wanly when you got off on subjects like freedom from government imposition. Was there no balm in our academic Gilead? There was! From among us came WFB to deliver the great "Oh, Yeah?" -- and to do so with style and polish. The sometimes droning mutters that would become so familiar over the years that caused you to lean forward in your seat, listening intently. The polysyllabic locutions. The rich vocabulary. The stinging wit (asked once, in my hearing, by an underground journalist, if he had anything to tell said journalist's readers, WFB replied, dropping never a stitch, "Yes. Grow up''). Nor could all the byplay conceal the man's charm and graciousness. Various college-bred disciples of WFB have cited to me the thrill of driving their hero to the airport or downing a quick one alongside him. What the real live Buckley gave to nascent conservatism, along with ideas, was presence and stature. Here was a young conservative (for goodness' sake), and a dazzlingly intelligent one. It was OK to like such a one, even to appropriate his notions. Yes, Barry Goldwater made the conservative movement happen politically, but Bill Buckley -- Barry's friend and backer -- made it happen for Barry, thus for countless conservatives ever afterwards. How to convey to non-conservatives the cosmic significance of Bill's lifework? Buckley, Buckley, Buckley: big words all the time, pseudo-English accent. Yuk ... I've heard it, you may have said it. Anything here worth noticing? This, I think: Public discourse, undisturbed, grows stagnant in time. It needs regular, intelligent stirring. Some day we may come to the point -- I wouldn't bet against it -- that the conservative assumptions of the past 40 years require some impolite disturbance. However, not just yet. Conservatism -- the creed of ordered liberty -- remains the robust persuasion, afizz with ideas. Read the Gore acceptance speech and its retrogressive attacks on the free market. Then read the Bush speech, with its proposals for solving real-life problems within a framework (so to speak) of freedom. Our brother Buckley, from the podium, before the camera, stirred and stirred and stirred. Maybe the brew isn't to everyone's taste. But, oh, that fizz!