Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Buckley stops here

Some of you — heck, perhaps all of you — will be flabbergasted to read this, but I'm going to say it anyway:

I'm going to miss William F. Buckley.

Were I going to populate a dinner table with the guests from throughout human history I believed would make the most fascinating conversation, Buckley would be near the top of the invitation list. The "godfather of American conservatism" was erudite, witty, disarmingly charming, and often hilarious. If you ever saw any of his Firing Line broadcasts — and I tuned in quite a few, over the program's 33 years on the air — you witnessed a master of the art of interlocution in action.

Buckley's gift for language was both compelling and astounding. Yes, he was perhaps overfond of his own repartee and Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but I have to confess that I learned a lot of interesting words and phrases from Buckley's talk shows and columns. The obvious relish with which Buckley wielded the tongue of Shakespeare is especially remarkable when one considers that it was his third language — he learned to speak Spanish and French in childhood, and began to study English only when he entered school at age seven.

As a political pundit, Buckley possessed the rarest of talents: the ability to engage in civil, even affectionate, discourse with people with whom he strongly disagreed. Although unquestionably opinionated, and not above using his rapier wit to belittle an opponent, Buckley managed to maintain positive relations with people at the opposite extremes of the philosophical spectrum from his own conservative-libertarian base. Many of his closest friends, such as liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, held views far removed from Buckley's. But he had that knack: even if you disagreed with him, you kind of liked the old goat. Grudgingly, perhaps, but still.

Buckley and I would not have found much common ground in a political or sociological debate. Even so, I appreciated his willingness to at least hear other sides of an issue, and to take occasional stands that set him at odds with those of like stripe, such as his often-stated position that the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been a complete failure.

Buckley also demonstrated that he could change his mind about things. Once an ardent defender of the racist, anti-Semitic John Birch Society during the 1950s, he repudiated the organization a decade later. Where Buckley once openly supported South African apartheid in the National Review, he later acknowledged that, had he been a black South African, he would have supported Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

Did Buckley ever fully renounce his own personal racism and anti-Semitism? I don't know — I never met the man. Let's just say I probably wouldn't have wanted him to marry my daughter.

I do think that I'd have enjoyed sitting across a table from him, and kicking ideas around over coffee. We might not have concurred about much. I'd like to think, however, that we'd both have at least heard a few well-articulated opinions.

And more than a few fifty-dollar words.

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