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William F. Buckley RIP

Thomas F. Roeser 28 February 2008 9 Comments

All conservatives, indeed all Americans, owe William F. Buckley enormously. You can’t imagine how poverty-stricken we were, bereft of conservative thought before he came along. Everything we had in the post FDR years was vestigial liberalism with no challenge. And then came 1955 the the year he began “National Review.” I was 27 at the time, already working for a living in Minnesota as researcher, organizer and speech-writer for the state’s GOP. Robert Taft had died two years earlier. The only thing we had to read was Robert R. McCormick’s “Tribune” eloquent editorials-and McCormick died April 1, 1955 which led to a winnowing down of the newspaper’s positions and the loss of its hardiness which continues even today (although it is improving vastly). There was a magazine that was very strange-“Freeman”-which was Ron Paul-style leave-us-alone libertarianism, pinched, crabbed, opposed to making any stand whatsoever against Communism despite that the disease was at that point threatening to engulf the West. There was the “American Mercury,” founded by that cockeyed closet racist and anti-Semite H. L. Mencken. And the John Birch Society had a publication that linked President Eisenhower to the Communists (which passed as “conservative”).

The reigning so-called “conservative” intellectual was Peter Viereck of Mount Holyoke college who was trying to atone for the sins of his father, a Nazi sympathizer named George Sylvester Viereck. George Sylvester, born illegitimate in Germany to the actress Edwina Viereck, was reputed to be the bastard son of Kaiser Wilhelm and he very likely was. He came to this country and preached undiluted Nazism including anti-Semitism that he was convicted under a sedition act in 1942 and was imprisoned for several years. His son tried to make amends by writing a book “Conservatism Revisited” that went exactly the other way-lionizing FDR and Adlai Stevenson and claiming that the New Deal was really the kind of so-called “conservatism” that should be espoused. He was a total nervous wreck, turning to the Left to eradicate the memory of his father and of no help or hope to any conservative whatever.

Then there was a weekly mailing, mimeographed, from New York that was called “Human Events.” “Human Events” was well written and was the progenitor of the newspaper we now, all of us (or almost all of us: certainly I do) rely on. “Human Events” was the only thing we had following the demise of the editorials in the “Chicago Tribune.” The “Wall Street Journal” editorials were valueless, concerned with economics only, pro-Keynesian as I recall. There was Fulton Lewis on the radio who read the news and commentary so poorly, screwing up the sentence structure, trying to correct his mispronouncing, we thought he was drunk (maybe he was). There was Westbrook Pegler, a brilliant writer and rhetorician who soon would be silenced for libel who would go over the side to the Birch Society; George Sokolsky who was pretty good but hardly well known. WGN radio belonged to the Mutual network and had a commentator named Robert F. Hurleigh (pronounced Hurley). There was Bill Baroody’s two-man “American Enterprise Association” that analyzed legislation and sent mimeographed copies to conservative members of Congress. And the Intercollegiate Institute. Basically, that was it.

That was it until WFB began “National Review.” I remember when I picked it up in Minnesota I thanked God for it-and him. I had read “God and Man at Yale” of course and “Up from Liberalism” and thought them wonderful but now we would have a magazine! Buckley swiftly built a cadre of people who reshaped conservatism into the edifice it is today. They had no time for the Birchers or anti-Semites, residues of which had survived from the “America First” committee. Now, “America First” was a noble organization (I’ve written about it extensively) but as with all ideological groups it had its share of nuts. After we entered World War II, the leaders, young men and women, themselves went to war leaving a small string of nuts. They tried to infiltrate Buckley but he tossed them out, rightly so. We’re indebted to him for befriending that genius of the West Whittaker Chambers-and among other things, encouraging Chambers to write his great negative review of the “Atlas Shrugged” by the crackpot duenna of selfishness Ayn Rand and her Objectivism. We’re told that whenever Buckley entered a room where Rand was she stalked out because of Chambers. Great tribute to them both.

What has come from WFB has been all we have today: Barry Goldwater the first conservative movement leader to run for president (far different from Taft because Taft, a brilliant logician, was in conservative strategy, torn between MacArthur and his own lessened foreign policy instincts, ambivalent, I thought, on fighting Communism, so concerned was he that the bureaucracy should not grow, but a genius nonetheless). The Goldwater campaign begat Ronald Reagan and all that followed. All the while there was Regnery Publishing, a literate “National Review” and a string of marvelous instruments-the Conservative Book Club, “The Weekly Standard,” “The Spectator.” Talk radio followed along with Fox. All these things can be traced back to William F. Buckley. He was not an organizer exactly-he was an inspiration. It is hard to envision it now, but before he began, conservatism was regarded as a variant of nuttiness: either anti-Semitism or racism or anarchism or Peter Viereck who idolized the Left and wanted conservatives to follow suit.

You know, the poet Ben Jonson wrote in his book “Timber or Discoveries” in 1630 a critique of his contemporary William Shakespeare who had died in 1616. The world was still trying to make up its mind about Shakespeare and Jonson, a minor poet and playwright but still an uncommonly good one (and undoubtedly jealous of Shakespeare) wrote this: “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted a line. My answer hath been: would he had blotted a thousand.” Well of course no one would say that of Will now-but of Buckley I can say I wish he had blotted some of his actions which were foolhardy. But they doesn’t diminish his greatness.

I wish, for example, he had not taken up the defense of marijuana legalization just because he liked to smoke it (and which incidentally certainly inculcated the emphysema that killed him). I wish he had not supported our giving away the Panama Canal although it was fun to see him bested, the only time in his life in debate, by Ronald Reagan. I wish he had not written “Nearer My God,” the book about his religious faith which surely was not a confusing testament that did him credit. Lillian and I took a cruise with the “National Review” and met him briefly but in the panel discussions he led, I always thought he labored too mightily to infuse even the most simple statement with memorable verbal appendages. But these are minor blips. he was unique, very-very kind, a genius with incomparable facets and a treasure.

I guess selfishly I wish he had not so diffused his talents-skiing, surfing, yachting, sailing-and had harbored his energies for communication more. But then how could you ask one to produce more than he did in his 82 years? These slight misgivings are incredibly minor things and to write them now sounds like Jonson anent Shakespeare. We should thank God…and I mean this religiously…that we had WFB because all of us who want to salvage the culture and historical significance of America and the West could not have made it without him. Reagan simply could not have mobilized his movement without Buckley’s having gone before, collecting intellectuals and writers. Take George Will alone: he occupies a signal place in U. S. conservatism and would never have gotten anywhere without having worked for Buckley-or Paul Gigot the editorial page editor of the “Wall Street Journal.” To the very end he had the ability to slough off the nuts including people who were once great but who became nuts-i.e. Joe Sobran.

The fact that WFB had so many friends in the liberal was a great treasure-because until he came we were pariahs. In fact the entire mobilization of the “Commentary” magazine people, observant Jews and their harnessing to the conservative movement could not have been accomplished without him. The entire edifice of modern conservatism which is impressive indeed, far more so in its intellectual ballast than liberalism, is attributed single-handedly to William F. Buckley. It is sad to imagine that we could never see his like again.

**

Tom Roeser is the Chairman of the Chicago Daily Observer Editorial Board.

9 Comments »

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    I always appreciated Buckley’s ability to make his points with humor. I also learned that when reading his “Notes and Asides” that it paid to have large, multivolume dictionary close at hand.

  • Bill Dwyer (author) said:

    A note from a concerned and sincere Democrat whose thought is informed by genuine and serious conservatives:

    In the 60 and 70s the voices of your movement were the likes of Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol and Barry Goldwater, as well as the now-disparaged Kevin Phillips.

    Now your movement is more and more held hostage by the likes of Bill Cunningham and Anne Coulter.

    Your movement has been allowed to devolve from one in which truly thoughtful men attacked, at worst, with witty sarcasm, to one far too often characterized by the bleating of small minded jack asses who compenstate for their paucity of intellect with crude utterances.

    Chicago Daily Observer is attempting to raise the level and tenor of political dialogue in Chicago. The Republican party would do well to follow that model, instead of tacitly accepting gutter tactics from the likes of Lee Atwaters and Karl Rove.

    America is catching on. So, for that matter, is John McCain, who repudiated the inbred looking Cunningham.

    Mull it over, folks. It’s no skin off my nose.

    I’ll miss Bill Buckley, BTW. Class act, and a fun read. If you disagreed with him, you’d better have done your homework first.

  • Rob Diego (author) said:

    Rand had deep, abiding disagreements with Buckley and the conservatives. She considered them to be too mixed philosophically to adequately defend freedom and capitalism. Needless to say the Chambers review harmed Rand very little as she is still read widely and in many languages. Her ideas have influenced noted world leaders and they continue to do so.

  • Bill Sarwozski (author) said:

    Interesting bio. I didn’t know much about Buckley, but I would summarize what I’ve learn in this write up as follows:

    Previous conservatives like Peter Viereck did not understand free-market capitalism, and ended up supporting people like FDR. basically “left-lite”.

    Buckley moved away from that, but instead legitimized the role of religion.

    So, where Viereck was taking conservative back to the Marxian 1900s, Buckley tried kicking them all the way back to 4AD!

  • Jerry Fahey (author) said:

    Tom Roeser do you just make stuff up and write it.

    Here is Buckley on smoking cigarettes and cigars which MAY have “inculcated” his lung disease.

    Buckley on smoking.

    I have never seen any post anywhere suggesting he liked to smoke marijuana until I read this.

    I really get the impression you just make facts up to support your beliefs.

  • Alan Bertram (author) said:

    Anyone who refers to Ayn Rand as a crackpot disqualifies himself as serious journalist.

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    William F. Buckley DID write about legalizing or loosening marijuana laws. According to his op-ed pieces, he purchased marijuana illegally for one of his sisters who was a cancer patient. He advocated the use of medical marijuana for chemotherapy patients. I do not know if he used any of the contraband for his own use.

    Buckley was a confirmed cigarette and cigar smoker and opposed smoking bans. He claimed that as an adult, he was entitled to subtract minutes from his own life expectancy in return for the immediate pleasure that each cigarette provided him.

  • Jerry Fahey (author) said:

    Dan,

    you are correct on Buckley advocating the legalization of marijuana laws. He also supported the Panama Canal treaty and kicked then former Governor Reagan’s butt in the televised debate. Buckley was right on both counts.

    What I objected to was Tom Roeser’s suggestion that Buckley himself was a frequent user of marijuana. I have never seen that anywhere and I suspect if he had smoked it Buckley would have written about it.

    I should have made my point more clearly and if Buckley were alive he would have rightfully mocked my writing.

    As he got older Buckley seemed to become more libertarian in his beliefs. That probably bothers Tom Roeser whose idea of heaven on Earth would likely be Francoite Spain. With that he and a young Buckley might have agreed.

  • Layne (author) said:

    Sir,

    You call Joe Sobran nuts? Please. You are a lightweight by comparison, my friend. And even worse, conventional in the worst sense. Maybe you should ask someone if you can’t understand him.

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