The Reactionary Utopian
                     March 23, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     No matter how I may disapprove of his version of 
conservatism, part of me will always love Bill Buckley.

     Funny? I'll say. Once we were discussing a hostile, 
badly written biography of him, and he quipped, "You know 
you're in the hands of a *truly* boring writer when 
you're reading about yourself, and you find your mind 

     It's no great secret that Bill and his confreres, 
his lovely sister Priscilla and his friend Jeffrey Hart, 
are disappointed in the young fry, sometimes called the 
"mini-cons," to whom his magazine, NATIONAL REVIEW, has 
been entrusted. The current issue features a cover 
article called "The 'To Hell with Them' Hawks."

     What are "to hell with them" hawks? The author is so 
proud of this phrase -- his very own coinage! -- that he 
quotes it in almost every paragraph, as if it were the 
most telling label since "radical chic." He's the kind of 
writer who says "prior to" instead of "before," and 
"replicates" instead of "repeats." The mind wanders ...

     "To hell with them" hawks are those conservatives 
you might expect to support the Iraq war, but who are now 
going wobbly -- having second thoughts about it. 
Obviously this means guys like Bill Buckley, who is in 
fact criticized -- by name! -- in an editorial in the 
same issue for saying the war is an American "defeat."

     It would sound harsh to say Bill deserves successors 
like the mini-cons, but he has undeniably brought them on 
himself. When he retired from his magazine a few years 
ago, he turned his throne over to these young 'uns, 
instead of (say) his own gifted son Christopher. Now, 
like King Lear, "fourscore and upwards," he's discovering 
he made a mistake.

     Maybe Chris didn't want the job. He'd already made a 
career as a bestselling satirical novelist, an 
independent talent, and he may have preferred to make his 
own mark, even if that meant letting the succession fall 
to young right-wingers with none of the Buckley wit. You 
can hardly blame them all for not being Buckleys.

     Bill always winced at the imitators he attracted. He 
never wanted to be the stereotyped "right-winger." He 
once wrote that though he was philosophically 
conservative, "temperamentally, I am not of the breed." 
George W. Bush, you might say, belongs to a breed Bill is 
not of.

     Many of his friends were liberals, and he was a 
skilled (and justly famed) debater who always tried to 
grasp and answer his opponent's point. He had such 
disarming humor and charm that his opponent, very often, 
became his friend. Those who expected to meet a snob met 
instead a playful man of ready affections and 
irrepressible kindness, not to mention personal 

     Bill found a purely "right-wing" atmosphere as 
stifling as a liberal one, and some of his best friends 
were brilliant maverick conservatives like his mentors 
James Burnham and the uproarious Willmoore Kendall, both 
original thinkers who deserve to be better remembered 
than they are. He kept his mind fresh with such delights 
as sailing, skiing, oil painting, and playing Bach on the 

     Despite his reputation as an intellectual, Bill 
spent little time in the study pondering ideas. Later in 
life he wrote spy novels instead of the weightier tomes 
I'd once hoped for. (He was immensely proud when he and 
his son made the bestseller list the same week.) Though 
intellectuals flocked to him, he preferred to live his 
own life on the move. "There is more true simplicity in 
the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who 
eats grape nuts on principle," Chesterton observed, and 
he might have been writing about a free spirit like Bill 

     Bill ate both, so to speak, but doing his duty as a 
conservative leader was the grape nuts side of his life. 
He became somewhat intoxicated by celebrity and, at the 
same time, averse to taking risks that might let down the 
team. Some think he chose as his heirs at NATIONAL REVIEW 
men who would not outshine him. But there was never any 
danger of that! He was the one and only. After him, 
nearly anyone would seem disappointing. Burnhams and 
Kendalls are in short supply nowadays.

     For half a century NATIONAL REVIEW was fueled by 
Bill Buckley's outsize personality. Now he can open the 
magazine he created and find himself derided as a "to 
hell with them" hawk. He deserved better than this. Like 
Lear, Bill is "a man more sinned against than sinning."


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