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The Original Limbaugh
William F. Buckley’s Rich Veneers

Had William F. Buckley Jr. not long ago become a has-been—and intellectual dandy who overstayed his uses by about 25 years, which coincides roughly with Ronald Reagan’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s—the tributes he’s been receiving from the right and the left would have been revolting, as opposed to merely nauseating. You expect the self-deluded right to revel in an elegiac orgy for the founder of grand delusions as ideology. You expect it less from liberals, who’ve nevertheless been swallowing whole the conventional ruse that while Buckley was a conservative, his intelligence, his wit, his probity, his stylistic elegance, kept him many cuts above the bullying Hannity-OReilly-Limbaugh sort. What crock. Buckley’s grace, when he displayed it, was his Trojan horse. His ideas, his politics, his insinuation of religion in politics, his obsession with liberalism as subversion and his dressing up of rank bigotry as some sort of moral redress are among the reasons the United States is the bulging sham it’s become.

Fifteen years ago I took on the reading, cover to cover, of his then-latest column collection. Having never until then subjected myself to a comprehensive slice of Buckley’s wordy life, I was under the illusion of the liberally romanced side of Buckley as the reasonable conservative. I looked forward to the reason. I was disillusioned, I think, by page 6. I read on, since I consider it a third-degree felony to leave a book unfinished. (Fortunately, the three-strikes-you’re-out standard doesn’t apply in my judicial universe.)

What follows is the result. It says something about Buckley’s books that what follows could be said of any of his books, beginning with that god and meow business at Yale that launched his bow-tied liberalophobia in 1951 all the way down to his last gasps in 2007. (I exclude his fictions, being the closest thing to verifiable truths that he wrote.)

It’s tempting to think that William F. Buckley Jr.’s latest book is also a new book. Its almost playful, almost eminent title, Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist,contains the word “reflections,” which implies pause, thought, reflection. Little of the book (other than those parts that serve as a mirror for Buckley’s amply entertaining vanities, which are many) is anything of the sort. It turns out to be yet another collection of recycled columns and speeches, this one made up of 120 such things produced with Buckley’s usual efficiency over the past seven years and now bound between hardcovers for a crack at a second life. Not all Catholic products need resuscitating.

It would be too easy to get on Buckley’s case for his unevolving obsession with communism, illegitimacy, quotas, Whittaker Chambers, “Dan Blather” (this from Bill Bucklavah), the “booboisie,” with “the Hitler-Stalin of today” (Castro, for now, who seemingly has something over Saddam Hussein, who Bush called a mere Hitler), too easy to pick on his marvelous inconsistencies, his spurious analogies, his eristic (to use one of his favorite words) arguments, his immense discomfort at anything too off-white (“if Vassar seems bizarre, you should not commencement this year at Columbia,” he ventilates. “There, reports the Times, ‘they prayed in Arabic, pondered in Chinese, and sang Hebrew, Latin, and Southern Baptist strains.’”)

From the Editorial Board
William F. Buckley Jr.

In October 2005, President Bush hosted a lunch for William F. Buckley Jr. at the White House in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Review, the journal Buckley founded.

Speaking in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building -- Eisenhower was president when Buckley birthed his magazine, and Ronald Reagan was still a registered Democrat -- Bush spoke of Buckley's achievements in the past tense even though Buckley was standing to his right: "He was an author, an editor, a spy novelist, a sailor and a conductor. The most important thing he did was to contribute to the realm of ideas for America. He was an entrepreneur. He kind of gathered up some dreamers and decided to do something. A lot of times dreamers don't do anything, they just sit there and dream. He decided to do something, and he formed a magazine that helped move conservatism from the margins of American society into the Oval Office."

If Bush's words sounded like a eulogy, it's because Buckley's moment as the nerve center of conservatism was long gone -- as was Reagan, whose ideology Buckley helped shape on its way to the Oval Office. The man eulogizing Buckley that October calls himself a conservative. But it's a conservatism often unrecognizable from the small-government sort Buckley advocated. Bush's conservatism is morally crusading, fiscally unbridled and imperiously driven to change the world in America's image. Buckley was satisfied safeguarding his God-fearing image of an authority loving, individualist America from liberalism. No Child Left Behind laws and Medicare prescription-drug benefits left him apoplectic. So did, somewhat late, the Iraq war.

"The neoconservative hubris," he told CBS News a few months after Bush's eulogy, "which sort of assigns to America some kind of geostrategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country. So, it is not conservatism. A conservative always measures capabilities and resources, and these are simply incapable . . . of bringing on democracy."

Of course, Buckley the conservative traditionalist was not above being infinitely disingenuous. The Buckley who spoke to CBS was the same Buckley whose National Review in 2001 (which he still controlled then) editorialized that "Osama bin Laden, whose humiliation and death is one of our prime war aims, is only a pustule on the diseased body of the Middle East. After Afghanistan comes Iraq. . . . After it comes Saudi Arabia." Pressing the case for war, the magazine two weeks later specified, in case the White House had missed the previous issue: "If Saddam Hussein were toppled and Saudi Arabia reformed or restructured, the Middle East would be emptied of many of its poisonous humors, like a bathtub when the plug is pulled away."

Still, that Buckley, who died Wednesday (he was 82), today seems a more moderate conservative than Bush's polarizing sort only proves how successful Buckley's right-lurching movement was. The lurch overtook him and left him behind, sometimes to his -- and not only his -- dismay. His more zealous ideological descendants can proudly say he reaped what he sowed. In spades.

Too easy, but there isn’t much else to do with a Buckley collection when one isn’t in the mood to bow before words like “concatenation,” “ deliquescent,” “nescience” and “conspectus.” Having to write three times a week, any columnist would eventually find himself tallying up a few contradictions. A few. But with Buckley, they are so frequent and so blatant that he gives the impression that his opinion on a given subject is really secondary to the rhetorical effect he wants his sentences to have on his readers. In jolt value, he is as liberal as his not-so good friend (but far better essayist) Gore Vidal.

Take the idea of democracy. It’s hard to forget what it stands for, once one decides how to define it. Not so for Buckley: “During the sixties, prompted by the tribulations of Vietnam, a significant group of influential Americans abandoned not only our national afflatus as the country whose manifest destiny was to bring democracy to every country in the world, but also subjective pride in living in a better society than that of Ho Chi Minh...” That, from a column in 1990. Skip forth 50 pages, but back to 1986, and this devolution occurs: “Democracy, particularly in its current accepted, fanatical application (one-man, one-vote), is nothing more than a Western superstition. We are entitled to our superstitions and to our taboos, but it does not make much sense to assume that they are readily universalized.”

In Buckspeak, we had a moral duty to fight for democracy in Vietnam, but America’s “imperial responsibilities in the Western Pacific...have nothing whatever to do with civic progress” in the Philippines. No wonder America’s right wind in double faced in its application of principles.

Then there are what John Leonard in his wonderful introduction calls “the suspect analogies and juxtapositions.” Homosexuals demanding the same rights to marriage as heterosexuals “is like saying that baseball players have the right to play football as football players.” (Buck knew not Bo.) Attacking George Bush for being bewildered by the existence of grocery bar code scanners is like saying that “Edward Gibbon shouldn’t have written about Rome, so removed was he from Roman life.” That Gibbon dead would have made almost as effective a president as Bush does not, needless to say, occur to Buckley.

Best of all is his defense of Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori’s martial law. Until the decree, “the terrorists, supplemented by the counter-terrorists, last year killed what in the United States would the equivalent of 50,000 people.” It’s a shocking figure at first, but thanks only to Peru’s comparatively small population of 23 million. Why not have cited Peru’s overall death toll of 25,000, bad enough without comparisons with el norte? Because Peru’s figure is accrued over 13 years, because half of those deaths have come at the Peruvian army’s hand and because America’s home grown homicides total 25,000 in a single year. Buckley is not calling for martial law here yet, but he should remind himself as he does George Will in one of his columns, “that rhetorical abuses can also be crimes against humanity.”

Surprisingly, this collection reflects a world that is really very narrow, considering Buckley’s reputation for being not only the dean of the conservative movement but also one of its most broad-minded (not open-minded, mind you) commentators.

The great upheavals of the last half-decade are virtually absent from Buckley’s scope. South Africa, Eastern Europe, Islamic fundamentalism (which would invite too obvious parallels with American fundamentalism, a version he cherishes), the Middle East (Gulf War glories aside of course), Western Europe ( Britain’s royalty aside of course), the Iran-Contra affairs, the budget deficit—these are subjects you will not find addressed in Happy Days Were Here Again. The author’s preoccupation with sailing or whether he can pull off playing the harpsichord solo in Bach’s F Minor concerto do, in all fairness, crowd them out.

Buckley’s problem after so many years of commenting and columnizing is that he seems done with thinking up fresh thoughts all his own. He likes to do what lazy columnists do and what Rush Limbaugh is perfecting: setting up a target—somebody’s article, somebody’s speech, somebody’s demonstration—and letting loose on it with a mixture of sophistry and sanctimony. His arsenal is a terracotta army of straw men. His columns read as if they’ve been written on automatic pilot, short on facts and missing that heartfelt sense of connection with contemporary crises or currents of thought.

It is nevertheless true that Buckley writes impeccably, that his brand of humor is sorely lacking in the liberal camp and that he too often and too correctly points out some of the obvious aberrations of liberalism, all of it making him occasionally irresistible (his nonpartisan columns are pure delight). But Flaubert would have reminded the libertarian journalist, “By dint of railing at idiots, one runs the risk of becoming idiotic oneself.”

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