Buckley and His Heirs
No matter how I may disapprove of his version of conservatism, part of me will always love Bill Buckley.
Funny? Ill say. Once we were discussing a hostile, badly written biography of him, and he quipped, You know youre in the hands of a truly boring writer when youre reading about yourself, and you find your mind wandering.
Its 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. Hes 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, hes discovering he made a mistake.
Maybe Chris didnt want the job. Hed 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 opponents 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 magnetism.
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 harpsichord.
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 Id 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 Buckley.
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 Buckleys 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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