Conservative commentator William F. Buckley died today, age 82. I guess someone finally told him who won the GOP nomination.
Buckley always seemed to consider himself out of place. At least, when he founded National Review, he claimed as such, and he was probably right. He entered the world of opinion manufacturing in a quite hostile environment for the conservative movement, when Vegas was given even odds on Moscow vs. D.C. and women eagerly sold socialist dreams on street corners for cold cash as a matter of everyday course.
Of course, even the conservative bastion of the right wasn’t immune from salvos from his own side. Ayn Rand, never exactly the most forgiving person in the world (and who would be, with her eyebrows?) never quite got over Whittaker Chamber’s scathing review of Atlas Shrugged, even going so far as to accuse Chambers of merely skimming the book. Granted, it’s doubtful even Ayn Rand herself read Atlas Shrugged, but the point stuck, and the feud between the objectivists and the paleoconservatives continues. And even the folks at the John Birch Society considered National Review only a few steps above Pravda for not being outraged enough about the fluoridation of the water supply or for not supporting a legal obligation to shoot residents of Haight-Ashbury with a high-powered rifle for sport.
Early in his life he was also was a CIA operative, something that strikes most people as slightly amusing. Exactly how would William F. Buckley operate as an agent? Where, exactly, would he fit in? He doesn’t exactly blend into a room that doesn’t involve contributing to the endowment or determining the price of gold. Maybe he was particularly adept at correcting the Russian’s grammar or something. He was active for less than a year, though, which for most people seems to be just about enough.
His tenure at the CIA, along with what he perceived to be the unfair portrayal of spook agents in the popular media, prompted Buckley to write a series of spy novels—again, a rather unusually surprising vocation for someone in Buckley’s position. Generally well-received, the stories of straight-arrow Blackford Oakes were interesting if not exactly unpredictable. Of the eleven books written, one can safely assume that the score was somewhere around Americans 11, Russkies and Red Chinese 0.
He also came to national prominence by virtue of his book, God and Man at Yale. (Being born the son of an oil executive and having a European education didn’t exactly count as strikes against him, either.) In this book, he wrote a scathing attack against Yale in particular and Ivy League education in general, accusing them of sanitizing education for the purposes of promoting secular liberalism. Most critics waved the book off as a disgruntled student unhappy with the mainstream acceptance of such progressive contrivances as Vatican II or electricity. For once the critics were right, since there has not been any evidence in the last six decades of American universities being bastions of secular liberalism or forcing that ideology on students who have the privilege of having their parents pay for it.
Of course, most America’s exposure to Buckley is because of Firing Line, a debate program that he hosted. It is probably one of the evil ironies of life that Buckley’s most successful venture outside of National Review was the product of the soul-sucking carnivore of taxpayer monies, the Public Broadcasting Service. It was here that most people were introduced to his quite odd mannerisms, including his clipped, unidentifiable accent and his devotion to using any sort of writing utensil as an adult pacifier. Most unfamiliar with his work might presume him to be just the sort of pretentious elitist liberal impractical intellectual that Buckley abhorred, and might be taken aback with surprise with the realization that he is, in fact, a pretentious elitist conservative impractical intellectual.
He ran for mayor of New York City once, not really to win but more to irritate John Lindsay, a proto-Republican that drove exactly the kind of people like William F. Buckley nuts. He lost, as he expected, and his impact on New York politics ineffectual, what with most New Yorkers not particularly driven to the polls by Lyndon Johnson’s Formosa policy or the gold standard.
Buckley’s legacy will most likely live for much, much longer, of course. He was an important stronghold against progressivism, and inspired a generation of intellectual heirs that act in their own creative ways. And yet this is perhaps just a touch bittersweet, since scores upon scores of young, conservative intellectuals to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!” did so much to help lead to the end of the Soviet Union but not so much so for the creation of the EPA or campaign finance reform. He died working at his desk, editing a book, a charge you probably couldn’t level at the editors of, say, Mother Jones, who would more that likely be found dead liberating Sandinistas or doing a line of coke in the back seat of a Prius in parking lot of Panera Bread. In theory.
Buckley, an avid fan of the fine arts, declared that Johann Sebastian Bach would be a fitting composer to play at his funeral. A crypto-fascist couldn’t ask for anything more.