Thursday, February 28, 2008

Buckley's Death, Part Two

I asked my dad to write something about William F. Buckley, who he greatly admired. Though my dad was in his 20s throughout most of the 1960s, to say he was not a flower child would be an extreme understatement. Temperamentally conservative and very intelligent, his political views and my respect for them -- though I hardly agree with all of them -- are part of the reason my friends in New York have to tolerate my deviations from the local orthodoxy. Anyway, here's what Dad generously wrote back when I asked him for a contribution:
My most vivid recollection of Buckley goes back to circa ’59-’60. there was a political discussion show on each Sunday night hosted by David Susskind, who would assemble pundits to debate the topics of the day. (It was called Open End; later it became The David Susskind Show.) The cold war was the dominant focus, with other subjects breaking into the usual liberal-conservative debates. As you know, I came down on the latter side and was generally disappointed in the caliber of spokespeople that Susskind rounded up to make the conservative case.

On this particular Sunday, Susskind introduced his guests. Representing the liberal view were Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith. Each was teaching at Harvard and they represented the intellectual heft for the prevailing liberalism of the day. Their credentials were impeccable and they were a formidable pair. Schlesinger the historian and Galbraith the economist were capable of brushing off any rival, and I had witnessed their success on far too many occasions. Their opponent on this program wasn't one of the usual political hacks, but a strange-looking young guy with flashing eyes and a darting tongue. I had neither seen nor heard of him before. He was introduced as the former editor of the Yale daily newspaper and the author of a book called God and Man at Yale. He appeared young enough to pass for an undergraduate, and there was no reason to suspect he would be anything but more fodder for the duo from Cambridge. If the Yale-Harvard football game sized up this way, Harvard would have been a 20-point favorite.

Then the discussion began. When it was over, it was obvious that people of any political persuasion would not forget the young man with the odd mannerisms and astounding vocabulary who sent even well educated and sophisticated listeners running to their dictionaries. Most impressive, however, was his attitude. The Schlesinger/Galbraith team was often smug to the point of arrogance, but not this time. Buckley was never defensive about his opinions and was on the attack early and often. It was an eye-opener. Conservatism had found a voice that would be heard for the next half century.

More than a narrow political pundit, Buckley was an accomplished sailor, a writer of fiction, and a member of New York's social elite. He and his wife, Pat, existed at the epicenter of the Big Apple’s social and cultural life. As his obituaries clearly point out, he had a gift for friendship, and that gift crossed the political divide. Schlesinger and Galbraith were his lifelong friends, a fact worth remembering at a point in our history where civility, let alone friendship, is on a leave of absence. (Ed. Note: Sam Tanenhaus writes, "Buckley and Galbraith were close friends for many years. Schlesinger and Buckley did not become friends but grew much warmer in the last years. I happened to see Schlesinger shortly before he died and he said, 'I like Bill.'")

Buckley was a devout Catholic, and the church influenced his thinking, but he was always more concerned with the pragmatic realities that actually governed the world than with the cultural issues that drive so much of our politics today.

If Buckley is right about God, I often wondered why that deity doesn't grant immortality to certain people. Not the Hall of Fame brand of immortality, but the real thing; freeze someone at a particular age and allow the rolling centuries to benefit from their existence. My pantheon for such treatment would include a very select few, and Buckley would be one of them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a "Best of Buckley"-type book that my Dad gave me years back. Since I am a music fan, I think the article he wrote dissecting the lyrics to John Lennon's "Imagine" sticks with me the most. If I remember right, Buckley's conclusion was that "Imagine" was one of the dumbest, most un-American, anti-freedom, anti-religious songs ever written. I never liked that song, anyway.


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