William F. Buckley: R.I.P., Enfant Terrible
William F. Buckley was the original enfant terrible.
As with Ronald Reagan, everyone prefers to remember great men when they weren’t being great, but later, when they were being admired. Having changed the world, there came a point when Buckley no longer needed to shock it.
But to call Buckley an “enfant terrible” and then to recall only his days as a grandee is like calling a liberal actress “courageous.” Back in the day, Buckley truly was courageous. I prefer to remember the Buckley who scandalized to the bien-pensant.
Other tributes will contain the obvious quotes about demanding a recount if he won the New York mayoral election and trusting the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book more than the Harvard faculty. I shall revel in the “terrible” aspects of the enfant terrible.
Buckley’s first book, “God and Man at Yale,” was met with the usual thoughtful critiques of anyone who challenges the liberal establishment. Frank Ashburn wrote in the Saturday Review: “The book is one which has the glow and appeal of a fiery cross on a hillside at night. There will undoubtedly be robed figures who gather to it, but the hoods will not be academic. They will cover the face.”
The president of Yale sent alumni thousands of copies of McGeorge Bundy’s review of the book from the Atlantic Monthly calling Buckley a “twisted and ignorant young man.” Other reviews bordered on the hyperbolic. One critic simply burst into tears, then transcribed his entire crying jag word for word.
Buckley’s next book, “McCarthy and His Enemies,” written with L. Brent Bozell, proved that normal people didn’t have to wait for the Venona Papers to be declassified to see that the Democratic Party was collaborating with fascists. The book — and the left’s reaction thereto — demonstrated that liberals could tolerate a communist sympathizer, but never a Joe McCarthy sympathizer.
Relevant to Republicans’ predicament today, National Review did not endorse a candidate for president in 1956, correctly concluding that Dwight Eisenhower was not a conservative, however great a military leader he had been. In his defense, Ike never demanded that camps housing enemy detainees be closed down.
Nor would National Review endorse liberal Republican Richard Nixon, waiting until 1964 to enthusiastically support a candidate for president who had no hope of winning. Barry Goldwater, though given the right things to say — often by Buckley or Bozell, who wrote Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” — was not particularly bright.
But the Goldwater candidacy, Buckley believed, would provide “the well-planted seeds of hope,” eventually fulfilled by Ronald Reagan. Goldwater was sort of the army ant on whose body Reagan walked to greatness. Thanks, Barry. When later challenged on Reagan’s intellectual stature, Buckley said: “Of course, he will always tend to reach first for an anecdote. But then, so does the New Testament.”
With liberal Republicans still bothering everyone even after Reagan, Buckley went all out against liberal Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. When Democrat Joe Lieberman challenged Weicker for the Senate in 1988, National Review ran an article subtly titled: “Does Lowell Weicker Make You Sick?”
Buckley started a political action committee to support Lieberman, explaining, “We want to pass the word that it’s OK to vote for the other guy or stay at home.” The good thing about Lieberman, Buckley said, was that he “doesn’t have the tendency of appalling you every time he opens his mouth.”
That same year, when the radical chic composer Leonard Bernstein complained about the smearing of the word “liberal,” Buckley replied: “Lenny does not realize that one of the reasons the ‘L’ word is discredited is that it was handled by such as Leonard Bernstein.” The composer was so unnerved by this remark that, just to cheer himself up, he invited several extra Black Panthers to his next cocktail party.
When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. objected to his words being used as a jacket-flap endorsement on one of Buckley’s books in 1963, Buckley replied by telegram:
“MY OFFICE HAS COPY OF ORIGINAL TAPE. TELL ARTHUR THAT’LL TEACH HIM TO USE UNCTION IN POLITICAL DEBATE BUT NOT TO TAKE IT SO HARD: NO ONE BELIEVES ANYTHING HE SAYS ANYWAY.”
In a famous exchange with Gore Vidal in 1968, Vidal said to Buckley: “As far as I am concerned, the only crypto Nazi I can think of is yourself.”
Buckley replied: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Years later, in 1985, Buckley said of the incident: “We both acted irresponsibly. I’m not a Nazi, but he is, I suppose, a fag.”
Writing in defense of the rich in 1967, Buckley said: “My guess is, that the last man to corner the soybean market, whoever he was, put at least as much time and creative energy into the cornering of it as, say, Norman Mailer put into his latest novel and produced something far more bearable — better a rise in the price of soybeans than ‘Why Are We in Vietnam?'” (For you kids out there, Norman Mailer was an America-hating drunkard who wrote books.)
Some of Buckley’s best lines were uttered in court during a lengthy libel trial in the ’80s against National Review brought by the Liberty Lobby, which was then countersued by National Review. (The Liberty Lobby lost and NR won.)
Irritated by attorney Mark Lane’s questions, Buckley asked the judge: “Your Honor, when he asks a ludicrous question, how am I supposed to behave?”
In response to another of Lane’s questions, Buckley said: “I decline to answer that question; it’s too stupid.”
When asked if he had “referred to Jesse Jackson as an ignoramus,” Buckley said, “If I didn’t, I should have.”
Buckley may have been a conservative celebrity, but there was a lot more to him than a bow tie and a sailboat.