Why William F. Buckley Was My Role Model
February 27, 2008 - 1:19pm ET
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William F. Buckley was my friend.
I'm hard on conservatives. I get harder on them just about every day. I call them "con men." I do so without apology. And I cannot deny that William F. Buckley said and did many things over the course of his career that were disgusting. I've written about some of them. But this is not the time to go into all that. My friend just passed away at the age of 82. He was a good and decent man. He knew exactly what my politics were about—he knew I was an implacable ideological adversary—yet he offered his friendship to me nonetheless. He did the honor of respecting his ideological adversaries, without covering up the adversarial nature of the relationship in fake bonhommie. A remarkable quality, all too rare in an era of the false fetishization of "post-partisanship" and Broderism and go-along-to-get-along. He was friends with those he fought. He fought with friends. These are the highest civic ideals to which an American patriot can aspire.
I first met Bill in 1997. When I contacted his assistant to ask for an interview for a book I was writing about Barry Goldwater, Buckley was immediately accommodating, though I had very little public reputation at the time. He was, simply, generous with people who cared to learn about conservatism. I sat with him for a good half hour in National Review's offices on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, and he answered every damned question I asked, in searching detail, and then answered a few I hadn't even asked. He also opened his papers to me at Yale University without hesitation. Would that all conservatives honored these ideals of intellectual transparency.
When my Goldwater book came out, he was generous in his praise of it—again, acknowledging all the while that we were ideological adversaries.
First came a very nice column. He called me "an ardent enthusiast for the America Left." Damn straight. Then he sought out my friendship. "I reproach myself"—I'll never forget that impeccable Buckleyite locution—for not reading the book earlier, he wrote in a personal letter. What a deeply sensitive, humane thing to say to a 31-year-old first-time author: an apology for not affording him his immediate attention.
The passage from my book he reproduced in his column quoted a "liberal" reporter on Goldwater: "How could such a nice guy think that way?" Why did I love WFB? Because he never would have asked such a silly question. The game of politics is to win over American institutions to our way of seeing things using whatever coalition, necessarily temporary, that we can muster to win our majority, however contingent—and if we lose, and we are again in the minority, live to fight another day, even ruthlessly, while respecting our adversaries' legitimacy to govern in the meantime, while never pulling back in offering our strong opinions about their failures. This was Buckleyism—even more so than any particular doctrines about "conservatism."
Nice people, friends, can disagree about the most fundamental questions about the organization of society. And there's nothing wrong with that. We must not fantasize about destroying our political adversaries, nor fantasize about magically converting them. We must honor that some humans are conservative and some humans are liberal, and that it will always be thus.
And some, simply are mensches. Last year Bill called me to ask if I would blurb his next book, about Goldwater. I chose not to. But damn: I bit my nails a little. I wanted him to blurb my book! Now he'd certainly take out his revenge by refusing. That's the way you're supposed to behave in the literary game.
He didn't. Instead, when a reporter came calling to ask him about Rick Perlstein, he said something remarkably sweet for the record—for all I know, one of his last public utterances. Then, after sending him the galleys of my most recent book, I heard back from him post-haste: another self-reproach. He would love to endorse it, but could not; he was too frail. This in an email obviously drafted by himself: letters were missing, words garbled.
Buckleyism to the end: friendship, and adversarialism, coinciding. All of us who write about politics, may that be our role model.
UPDATE: a lovely bit from the comments below—
I can't imagine that I had anything in common with Mr. Buckley except a love of sailing (which I haven't done in so long I've forgotten how). Still, his death is a loss to this Republic, such as it still stands.
Here is what Bill Buckley wrote to Michael Harrington near the end of Mike's life when he was battling the cancer that would take him away from us: "I saw you briefly on tv yesterday (you were making a brief appearance in behalf of socialism), and I rejoiced that your appearance was brief, and that you looked so well...I have said a special prayer for your recovery...Meanwhile, take care of yourself: You are a brave and admirable man, the daemons to one side."
William F. Buckley was a "brave and admirable man, the daemons to one side," too. We should remember him as such, even while fighting tooth and nail the politics for which he stood.
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