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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

RIP WFB

One usually begins an obituary by quickly identifying the deceased’s main occupation in life. How do you do that with William F. Buckley, Jr., who died today at the age of 82? He was a magazine founder and editor; a newspaper columnist; a television talk-show host; a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction books; a political activist, organizer and theoretician; a candidate for office; a phlanthropist; a sportsman; a pretty fair amateur musicologist and theologian; and of course, a great satirist.
Buckley will undoubtedly be best remembered as one of the chief intellectual forces in the development and rise of the late-twentieth century American Conservative Movement. And that’s undoubtedly true; aside from his prodigious institution-building and writing and talking, his own previously-unusual blend of libertarian and traditionalist thinking, fused in no small part by a militant anti-communism, was emblematic of the movement itself at its height.
Like conservatives at large, Buckley was wrong about a lot of things, big and small; perhaps his worst political sin, for which he largely apologized later, was his dismissal of the civil rights movement. He also wasted his vast talent on defending more than his share of despicable figures, from Francisco Franco and Joe McCarthy to Spiro Agnew and a host of other hammer-headed conservative politicians. But he was also capable of surprising friends and enemies alike with uncomfortable heresies, such as his support for the Panama Canal Treaty, his frequent attacks on the War on Drugs, and most recently, his rejection of the war in Iraq.
His journalistic accomplishment were legion. Back in the day, before it assumed the burdens of a governing conservative movement, National Review was one of the liveliest, funniest magazines available, even if you disagreed with all of the content. And then there was Firing Line.
For those too young to remember it, Buckley’s television talk show, Firing Line, was on the air for an incredible 33 years (1966-1999), with 1,504 episodes. One small token of the show’s longevity was an episode that reconvened a panel of young British commentators who had been Firing Line regulars for a season or two, as OxBridge students. At their reunion, they were all Members of Parliament. And that was a good couple of decades before the show finally went off the air.
As for the quality of discourse on Firing Line–which over the years probably featured as many guests from the Left as from the Right–I can only say that the contrast with what passes for political debate and analysis on television today is truly depressing. The worst Firing Line episode ever was almost certainly better than the best exchange of sparkling repartee on Crossfire. And Buckley’s eagerness to confront the Left in open debate was light years away from the bullying agitprop of Fox.
But in the end, what many of us will most remember about William F. Buckley, Jr., was his satirical wit, which stood out pretty sharply in the non-ironic era of the 60s and early 70s, when Laugh In represented the acme of sophisticated humor. Buckley’s wit was not of the knee-slapping or one-liner variety, though his response to a question regarding his first act of Mayor of New York during his guerrilla 1965 campaign for that office was an exception: “I’d demand a recount.” More typical was his comment after actress Shelley Winters said on a TV talk show that she was a liberal because “growing up as a girl in the Depression, Herbert Hoover hated me while Franklin Roosevelt gave me a bowl of hot soup.” Quoth Buckley: “Mr. Hoover was truly a man of remarkable foresight.” And he could wax satiric about even the least humorous topics. After attending his first post-Vatican II vernacular Mass, this rigorously obedient Catholic said it felt like “entering Chartres Cathedral and discovering that the stained glass had been replaced by pop-art posters of Jesus sitting in against the slumlords of Milwaukee.”
Buckley once said he offered his frequent polemical enemy Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a “plenary indulgence” for his errors after Schlesinger leaned over to him during a discussion of the despoilation of forests and whispered: “Better redwoods than deadwoods.” And that’s certainly how a lot of us on the Left feel about the legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr. (see progressive historian Rick Perlstein’s tribute to WFB’s decency and generosity at the Campaign for America’s Future site). He made us laugh, and made us think, and above all, taught us the value of the English language as a deft and infinitely expressive instrument of persuasion. I’ll miss him, and so should you.

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