Libertarian History/Philosophy

Some Thoughts on WFB

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This will not be a fully thought out discussion of William F. Buckley's influence and achievements. For a bit more in that direction, see this review of a Buckley bio and this review of a book on National Review's history.

There is a lot I could disagree with about the way Buckley treated what he clearly thought of as his conservative movement throughout the years, particularly his linking it with an endless war against communists both domestic and foreign. But I should also remember that if the conservative movement of today were more truly his, it would be a conservative movement I could cheer far more than I can the one we are actually faced with here in the phenomenal world Buckley has just left us behind in.

On the passing of this man of world-historical importance, I prefer to just note some details of his charm and humanity. He is known as a ruthless enforcer of orthodoxy within conservatism (for his own extended take on why he felt he had to be, see his 2003 novel Getting It Right in which fictionalized Objectivists and Birchers are drubbed). He's cheered for it and booed for it by different camps for different reasons.

But in his personal life, for the most part, he showed a winning ability (again, much of the time, not all) to be friendly and supportive beyond obvious ideological differences. I prefer to remember the Buckley who is understood to have provided support above and beyond the call to such friends and mentors as Whittaker Chambers and aging anarchist Frank Chodorov in his waning years; who could write, in response to many intemperate attack letters from his old buddy Murray Rothbard that "not that I love you any the less, you perverse old anarchist. But don't worry, when the Communists come, I'll run interference"; who would publish articles by the then utterly disreputable Timothy Leary in National Review in 1976 based on what Leary told me was the intertangled old acquaintanceships between his New England Irish aunts and Buckley's family, and "out of friendship–libertarian friendship"; and the man who could be long and intimate pals with ideologues who he considered as dangerous and wrong as John Kenneth Galbraith.

He was often a sterling example of letting humane considerations trump political ones (though he was usually less charitable toward ones, like Rothbard, Garry Wills, or Joseph Sobran, who he had thought of as "on his side" but who then shifted in whatever direction).

Yes, this kind forbearance was not universal, and some of his own obituaries for prominent libertarians he was at odds with such as Rand and Rothbard were intemperate. A complicated man, to be sure, and a complicated public influence. But on this day of his passing, I'll remember the wit who wrote an amused but delicate letter trying to placate F.A. Hayek (who was appalled at the indecorum of running a gag item hinting that deceased UN chief Dag Hammarskjold had cheated at cards); and who wrote in his influential column in 1971–the year that radical libertarians like Louis Rossetto were on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Magazine–that "the radical libertarians have a great deal to contribute."

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10 responses to “Some Thoughts on WFB

  1. maybe this is due to my age, but the only place i’d ever heard his type of speech and accent, before watching the youtube of him snapping at Vidal (good for him) or debating with Chomsky (excellent!) is in parodies of upper-class bluebloods, such as G. Thomas Howell III on Gilligan’s Island reruns, or in cartoons and commercials.

    Really a fascinating person; there hardly seem to be any public intellectuals of his stripe anymore – broadly well-educated, principled and well-mannered, thoughtful, charming, and supremely well-spoken. Who speaks in such a precise way anymore?

  2. I will mangle this paraphrase horribly, so I ask in advance for forgiveness.

    WFB was once asked about his strange accent. His reply was something like, “My first language was French, I went to an English boarding school, and live on the East Coast. How do you want me to talk?”

    I just came across another priceless quote, regarding a letter-writer’s demand that Buckley cancel the writer’s subscription to NR. Quoth Buckley: “Cancel your own godamn subscription.” The fact that this made me think of Mona indicates that I’ve been here too long.

  3. Very nice, Brian. I feel very similarly to you towards the man and his legacy.

  4. It occurred to me that the boarding school accent was developed to cope with his speech impediment, but I have no solid basis for that observation.

    I recall seeing Buckley at a speech and Q&A in Chapel Hill he gave. During the Q&A, several people lined up to ask him questions, and everyone of them when their turn came adopted Buckley’s speaking style down to every Buckley mannerism you could imagine.

    I remember chuckling to my company, “oh my God, we are apes, after all.”

  5. maybe this is due to my age, but the only place i’d ever heard his type of speech and accent, before watching the youtube of him snapping at Vidal (good for him) or debating with Chomsky (excellent!) is in parodies of upper-class bluebloods, such as G. Thomas Howell III on Gilligan’s Island reruns, or in cartoons and commercials.
    I miss read that as “Slapping” and was sorely disappointed.

  6. “…….prominent libertarians he was at odds with such as Rand…….”

    Oh no you didn’t!

  7. Can you imagine a conservative movement where joking that somebody cheated at cards was considered over the top?

  8. OK, I’m baffled. The squirrels are just screwing with me now.

  9. A tribute to William F. Buckley

    To the tune of Bach’s cantata and . . . OK, to the tune of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”

    Now here’s a little story I’ve got to tell
    About this bad brother you know so well
    It started way back in history
    With a guy we call – WFB.
    The conservative movement had gotten queer
    Just Taft and McCarthy and the art of smear
    Riding across the land, reading Ayn Rand
    More marginal than they could stand.
    In came WFB
    All by himself without nobody
    The sun was beating down on his baseball hat
    The liberals were complacent, they thought they were phat
    Lookin’ for a movement, he published some books
    *God and Man at Yale* made us take a look

    At a liberal Establishment that had taken a turn for the worst
    *McCarthy and His Enemies* provoked libs to curse.
    The books got published, WFB was hip
    He said, “let’s have a magazine – I’ll be captain of the ship.”
    Birchers said, “Can I get some?”
    He said, “You can’t get none!”
    Before they could run
    He pulled out his shotgun
    He was quick on the draw, he shot the Birchers dead
    He put the gun to my head and this is what he said,

    “Now my name is WFB, I’ve got a license to kill
    It’s time you all learned not to mess with Bill.
    The conservative ship is what I shall steer,
    I’ll repudiate the extremists, do I make myself clear.”
    He purged the Right and made it fight, he thought it was no sin
    You think this story’s over but it’s ready to begin

    “Now I got the magazine, now don’t feel blue
    You got two choices of what you can do
    It’s not a tough decision as you can see
    I can marginalize you or you can get on board with me”
    I said, I’ll get on board with you, I’m a conservative supporter
    And you’re the only one who can bring some order
    To our diverse movement. And that was that.
    WFB wore the boss’s hat.
    WFB, he was the one
    And right about now he started to have some fun
    William F. B., that is my name
    And the conservative position I can explain.”
    He exposed all the left-wing rot
    He was on TV, lookin’ real hot
    The dude was smart, knew a lot of big words
    He showed how the liberal view was absurd
    Liberals said, “Yo, can we beat this kid?
    We don’t, but we sure wish we did.”
    The kid said, “Get ready cause this ain’t funny
    My name’s WFB and I’m about to get money.”
    Sold lots of books, the dude was fly
    He published these novels about a cool spy
    Blackford Oakes was his name, whom readers adored
    Had sex with England’s Queen, then had sex some more.

    “I’m WFB, and I get respect.
    Acknowledgement of my intellectual prowess is what I expect.”

    [etc.]

  10. well,

    The conservative movement had gotten queer
    Just Taft and McCarthy and the art of smear

    At least I never said,

    “we have got to accept Big Government for the duration-for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged…except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.

    and

    large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington

    That is pure Buckley for you bitches.

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