Sunday, March 09, 2008

Obituary: William F. Buckley Jr.

Just three or so days before my favorite living conservative passed, I was having dinner with a friend and her family in Hell's Kitchen. "William F. Buckley's dead," my friend's step-mother said, "I'm sure of it."

"No way," I argued. "I swear I just wrote something about him in someone else's obituary not two months ago." I couldn't remember whose though (It was Norman Mailer, last November).

We almost bet on it -- $20 -- and even agreed that I would still win as long as old Buck was still alive at the time we were betting. We didn't make the bet, but I sent a thank you letter (they paid for dinner) that mentioned as politely as possible that I would have won the bet. I dropped it in the mailbox one day and Buckely died the next.

So what do you say about a man who, as Buckley protege David Brooks recently wrote, "changed the personality of modern conservatism, created a national movement and expelled the crackpots from it"? The first thing you might say is that he was not a neocon. That's a good thing these days (doesn't Goldwater look almost reasonable today?). On the other hand, as we're reminded in the eulogies on both sides, he supported Joseph McCarthy, said nice things about General Franco, and stood in the way of Civil Rights. Then again, he really did, as Brooks said, help rid mainline conservatism of its more embarassing types (like the John Birch Society).

Buckley lent lukewarm support for the war in Iraq, and then openly opposed it. He thought Rumsfeld should have resigned after Abu Ghraib. He was disgusted by Guantanamo. He was against Bush's Troop Surge. In a lot of ways, he was once again "standing athwart history" by sticking to his conservative roots, by not capitulating to the neoconservative tidal wave that has owned the movement for the last decade and a half or more.

"Before Buckley, there was no conservative movement," wrote his neoconservative counterpart William Kristol in Weekly Standard. Conservatives like to say that. It's not exactly true, of course. American Conservative thought didn't just spring up out of Buckley in 1953 with God and Man at Yale. Liberals supported the idea, though -- Lionel Trilling called liberalism "the sole intellectual tradition" in America in 1950. So maybe it coalesced after Buckely cleaned it up.

I read the first half of God and Man at Yale, Buckley's indignant book in my last year of college. No, I couldn't finish it. But not because it wasn't good; it was. It was so earnest, so rebellious. Those damn liberals were ruining college and young Buckley wasn't going to sit still for it. What was so refreshing for me about Buckley was that he seemed like a conservative one could have a discussion with. What other conservatives come across that way today? Or yesterday? They're either too dumb, too belligerent, too loud, or they're too busy plotting your arrest for treason.

Unlike so much of the modern conservative (and especially the neoconservative) movement, Buckley was a polymath. He was intellectually curious.

The only Buckley book I own is a little dictionary called The Lexicon. I love it. It's a little dictionary of words Buckley has used, with his own definitions and his own citations. An example:
bowdlerized (verb) Shrunk, with the purpose of expurgating the titillating bits. After Thomas Bowdler (1754-1824).

Churchill pauses from the war effort to cable back his regards to Mrs. Luce, who meanwhile has been asked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to brief them on her analyses, which, suitably bowdlerized, appear in successive issues of Life magazine and are a journalistic sensation.
Bowdler, I should add, was famous for taking the naughty bits (like references to "the beast with two backs" -- Othello -- and "oh happy dagger this is thy sheath" -- Romeo and Juliet) out of Shakespeare. Mormons would be proud.

Here's another:
buncombe (noun) Talk that is empty, insincere, or merely for effect; humbug.

Arafat's approach to a fresh plan in the Mideast was scorned by the government of Israel as so much diplomatic buncombe.
I might add that the word comes from an American Representative named Walker who gave a speech to the 16th Congress (1819-21), speaking for Buncombe, the North Carolina district he was from. But I had to look that up, and I'm not likely to use it in a sentence soon. That's the thing about Buckley -- he knew all these words and used them regularly and correctly. As Jesse Sheidlower says in his introduction to The Lexicon,
"He, unlike most of the hard-word crowd, genuinely uses thse words, and he uses them because they fit what he wants to say. He uses them in context, without calling special attention to them, because he knows them, not because he scribbled them in a notebook after finding them in the Oxford English Dictionary. He uses them because they are right.
There are others, like William Safire, another of my favorite conservatives/word mavens (how can you not love the guy who penned the famous Spiro Agnew line "nattering nabobs of negativism"?). But they're just not the same.

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Anonymous Andy said...

I hope you're preparing a lengthy, erudite tribute to the man that made it possible for you to write about the conservative movement so eloquently.

Remember, the trick with Buckley is that you call him a crypto-Nazi one more time, he'll sock you in the goddamn face, you queer.

4:29 PM  

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