The Feb. 28 Style appreciation of William F. Buckley incorrectly described Edmund Burke, a member of Britain's Parliament in the 18th century, as an Englishman. He was Irish.
William F. Buckley Jr., Rapier Wit Of the Right
Thursday, February 28, 2008
What a grand and grandiloquent monster of genial and mischievous self-creation William Buckley was.
"If you want me to pur suuuuuuuue in that direction," he'd warn leftist theorist Noam Chomsky on television in his strange demi-Anglican drawl, lighting his phrases with italics and exclamation points while he shot his jaw, tapped his lip with a pen and slouched ever further in his chair while his teeth bared in the grimace that reminded you of a woodchuck and a hung-over duchess at the same time.
While the eyebrows -- the eyebrows! -- wandered off like the vagaries of life itself, one frowning while the other vaulted up his forehead in triumph, horror, irony. Dead now at 82, but so alive in memory. And yet:
"Everything I do and say and the way I do and say it annoys me," he said once, explaining why he never watched himself on "Firing Line." However, while sailing in his yacht he was known to listen to a tape of David Frye imitating him.
Of course: He was the Connecticut millionaire's son trained to despise affectation and love modesty -- and yet . . . he had the gifts of a great comedian, gifts that are irresistible to anyone in this land that so honors the perpetual undergraduate. And such a vortex of contradictions: the Roman Catholic prep-school Skull and Bones Yalie heir to an Irish family's Mexican oil fortune. (He spoke Spanish before he spoke English.) Foe of anti-Semites, advocate of tattooing AIDS carriers on the buttocks, champion of McCarthyist Communist-hunting, and of the legalization of marijuana. His outrageousness immunized him against effective condemnation.
In 1986, he wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "I asked myself the other day, 'Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?' I couldn't think of anyone." A monster, or, as the French say, a monstre sacré, one whose grandeur puts him beyond criticism.
One imagines him in his rooms at Yale, winking at onlookers while he enwrapped some hapless one-world liberal in the python grip of prose worthy of an 18th-century political philosopher such as Edmund Burke, an Englishman who supported the American Revolution and also deeply grieved the execution of Marie Antoinette. (At the age of 8, Buckley wrote a letter to the king of England demanding payment of a war debt to America.)
Burke was one of the forefathers of the movement that the mischievous Buckley is now credited with rescuing from the fusty, teacup frustration of the Franklin D. Roosevelt years, from an obscurity so great that a cornerstone of Buckley's thought was a 1943 book by Albert Jay Nock titled sadly "Memoirs of a Superfluous Man."
By 1950, Lionel Trilling, a grandee among intellectuals, could proclaim: "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." How Buckley must have chuckled. He would soon scandalize the academic establishment with "God and Man at Yale," which portrayed an atheistic nest of liberal degeneracy there in old New Haven.
One could pity Nock, but no one pitied Buckley in the next decade when he founded the National Review. He was getting too much attention, laughing too hard, skewering too many enemies and getting away with it. Buckley may have been friends with public liberals such as John Kenneth Galbraith, but he never made any gesture toward accommodating Galbraith's progressive politics. Instead, he stood up amidst the United Nations future-building of the post-war era and defined his conservatism as "tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us."
This is perhaps the sort of comment that led cultural critic Dwight MacDonald to accuse Buckley of "soggy facetiousness." But there wasn't much MacDonald could do with puns such as the one that appeared in the National Review when it was learned that the American Academy of Dermatology and Syphilology was dropping the last two words of its title: "Skinicism is only sin deep."
Buckley seemed to be having so much fun, no matter how dark and difficult his positions could be, such as his magazine's early support of segregation or his defense of Joe McCarthy. So much fun, in fact, that he could debate Ronald Reagan over handing the Panama Canal over to Panama -- Buckley favored the hand-over, unpredictably enough -- and remain friends with Reagan even after saying to him: "The force of my illumination would blind you."