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The Article

We lost this last week William F. Buckley, Jr., sesquipedalian novelist, essayist, and pundit, magazine impresario, television host, yachtsman, harpsichordist, sometime spy, bon vivant, libertarian conservative, Latin Mass Catholic, widower, and sufferer from emphysema and diabetes, age 82.

Or as William Dunbar, the old Scots makar, wrote “quhen he wes sek”:

On to the ded gois all Estatis, / Princis, Prelotis, and Potestatis, / Baith riche and pur of al degre.

As Mona Charen wrote in the Washington Post, the man who declared in 1955, in the founding number of National Review, his ambition to “Stand athwart history, yelling: Stop!” did not entirely succeed. But by 1985 he had at least “torqued” it, through the political efforts of two old National Review subscribers, Mr Ronald Reagan, and Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

I enjoyed him as the antithesis to everything in the stereotype of the American redneck. A younger son in a superbly wealthy family, whose father had made his fortune in Mexican oil, Buckley’s first language was the Spanish he learned from the maids, and his second language was French. He attended fine Catholic academies in France, then England, and his accent, highbrow mid-Atlantic imposed on a southern drawl, might have been calculated to irritate almost everybody. It became, together with bulging eyes, exaggerated gestures, and a palpable delight in his own wit, instead the source of his charm.

Elitism, aristocracy, that “terrifying Southern charm” (as Susan Mary Alsop once described it to me, admitting that it translates easily to New England, and can intimidate Washington)—these are not ideals we associate with the very populist Republican rank-and-file. As the genius of England was to cultivate class differences, the American genius has been to deny the obvious, and Buckley’s partisan noblesse oblige became the devastating secret weapon of the conservative movement he founded.

An impresario: for Buckley had an extremely important role in modern political history, which was neither that of thinker nor politician. He performed a brilliant fusion of the American conservative tradition (which by the 1950s had degenerated into powerless grumpiness), with the equally beleaguered American libertarian tradition, bringing both to life matched as body to soul. He did not invent things, he put them together. I am not discounting him with this word “impresario,” for it is the vital link between creative thought and action, and it often embraces both.

Buckley understood his own role, and showed that he understood it by the responsibility he took for his burgeoning conservative movement, both positively and negatively. He assembled a constellation of articulate intellectuals, many of them refugees from the Left. He set an example of both courage and grace in debate. He hardly shy’d from controversy, in fighting Communism abroad or small-s socialism at home, in the face of an American intellectual establishment that was, in the 1950s, reflexively “liberal,” and growing viscerally “anti-anti-Communist.”

But Buckley also, personally, freed the conservative movement from associations with anti-Semitism, freed it from association with the John Birch Society, and with Ayn Rand’s puerile “Objectivism,” and finally freed it from the segregationism that was intuitive to the American South —always at personal cost and discomfort.

And to the end he took nothing for granted, adjusting his own views in the light of contemporary historical experience, and resisting reflexive conservatism. He became an opponent of the war in Iraq, and a supporter of the legalization of drugs; much to my own consternation.

The graciousness and generosity must be emphasized, for these are qualities that are lost on postmodern society, and are among the conservative traits most in need of restoration. True, every human being has his tripping point, and after being called a “fascist” repeatedly by Gore Vidal on one memorably publicized occasion, he did call the man a “queer” in reply, and threaten to “sock” him. But it was the exception to a life-long habit of charity to allies and opponents alike, and to a Socratic debating style that allowed his adversary to hang himself, gently but decisively.

“Blow up the trumpet in Sion.” . At the centre of Buckley’s being, was his uncompromising Catholic faith, and in his hand the trumpet of Joshua. And the wall came down. John O’Sullivan recounts, in one of the Internet obituaries, the way in which this man was embraced, visiting Prague after the fall of the Berlin Wall, by men who “told him of how they had read smuggled copies of NR during the years that the Communist regime condemned them to work as stokers and quarry-men.”

David Warren
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