When William F. Buckley Jr. died in February 2008, I happened to be in another of the endless arguments with myself about whether to sue him. I knew it was probably a bad idea. But I was sick of letting him make me look (and feel) like an idiot.
In his dotage, Buckley, once the young firebrand who published God and Man at Yale at 26 and began National Review at 29, had become a beloved, almost cuddly figure in popular culture; a throwback to a period when apparently, grace, erudition, and civility ruled our public discourse. The Washington Post eulogized him as “urbane, charming, and erudite”; the Associated Press offered “good-natured,” “intelligent,” and “witty.” And in a show devoted to his memory, Charlie Rose announced, “We celebrate his ideas.”
Who says irony is dead? After all, these encomia, and many more just like them, were directed at a figure who originally came to the attention of much of the television-viewing public by replying to Gore Vidal on ABC News (during the 1968 Democratic Convention), “Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” Okay, so Vidal did call him a Nazi. But the love shown the man upon his demise failed to note that he had never gotten around to repudiating a series of political views that were well beyond the bounds of common decency.
Buckley remained, for instance, an anti-civil-rights white supremacist to the end. In August 1957, he authored an editorial in National Review, “Why the South Must Prevail,” citing the alleged “cultural superiority of white over Negro” and with it, the need for the South’s white population to “take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where [they do] not predominate numerically.” When Terry Gross asked him about the editorial on NPR 32 years later, he assessed it to be “absolutely correct.”
Nor, insofar as I am aware, did Buckley ever recant his enthusiasm for South Africa-style apartheid, which in 1961 he termed “that brilliantly conceived structure” that helped “black Africans” avoid their apparently well-known “tend[ency] to revert to savagery.” Buckley never reconsidered his embrace of Joe McCarthy’s thuggish tactics, mocking instead what he termed “liberals’ fetishistic commitment to democracy.” Then there was his enthusiastic support for fascist dictators like Franco and Pinochet and, fueled by his fanatical anti-Communism, his calls for nuclear attacks on both China (1965) and North Vietnam (1968). The outrages continued through the ages. In 1986, he said “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm . . . and on the buttock.” According to New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, author of a forthcoming Buckley biography, he refused to consider David Brooks to be editor of National Review because he was Jewish (or, more precisely, not a “believing Christian”).
But polite society had long ceased to worry about views like these. In his final decades, Buckley was also a man who kept television discourse civil and conservatism (relatively) sane. He was the almost impossibly enviable fellow who wrote Overdrive (1983), excerpted in The New Yorker, in which he explained that he preferred a custom-fitted Mercedes to a plain old limousine, but could not recall whether it was more or less expensive. For all his reactionary political views, Buckley appeared strikingly ecumenical in his personal life. He skied in Gstaad with his superliberal friend John Kenneth Galbraith. He lunched regularly with the editor and publisher of The New York Times. Mike Kinsley, then America’s sharpest liberal pundit and on-again, off-again editor of the leftish flagship, The New Republic, was more than happy to serve as Buckley’s liberal sidekick on Firing Line.
Politics aside—and I do believe in putting politics aside in personal matters—I could not help but admire what beer commercials call the “gusto” of his lifestyle. To me, he was one of the last of the lions: the great literary and political figures of the ’50s and ’60s—Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag were others—who made the world their own but said quite a few silly things on the way. Whatever he thought about this or that, the man knew how to live, and he created both a lifestyle and a persona, that, as a young political writer with both literary and intellectual ambitions, offered up a model, however unreachable, to which I might aspire.