March 1, 2008


‘It’s the Epigoni, Stupid’: William F. Buckley Jr. stood athwart history and changed its course. (Mark Steyn, 3/01/08, National Review)

I’m sure even now some New York Times type is tutting that Buckley’s movement has fallen into the hands of vulgar bullies like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who lack his dash and élan. As it happens, back in 2000 some fellow in the San Francisco Chronicle made exactly that point about a lout called Steyn disfiguring Buckley’s National Review. But, in reality, Bill was, as he would say, the fons et origo of a conservatism that came out swinging — sometimes literally, as in a famous TV encounter of 1968. “As far as I am concerned,” drawled Gore Vidal, “the only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” “Now listen, you queer,” replied Buckley. “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Indeed. And, if “You Nazi!”/”You queer!” isn’t exactly up there with Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward in the devastating repartee rankings, well, Vidal started it, and Bill’s epithet, unlike Gore’s, at least has the merit of being true. The idea that William F. Buckley represents a civilized conservatism lost to uncouth savages will no doubt become received wisdom in the same way that, upon his death, Ronald Reagan’s success was universally ascribed by the media to an avuncular geniality wholly alien to the vengeful knuckledraggers of the Bush era. But Bill was lethal with opponents on the opposite team and on his own side, dispatching a liberal Republican like his own Senator, Lowell Weicker, to the trash can of history and purging conservatism of its crackpots so thoroughly that conspiracy theories, principally a hallmark of the right in the Fifties, were by the Sixties the more or less sole province of the left, where they’ve remained ever since.

In his speech at the National Review 50th-anniversary gala, he did me the great honor of reading out a passage of mine from the birthday issue that happened to have tickled his fancy. I am a considerably less elegant writer and listening to Bill reading my rough-and-tumble prose in his languid vowels was a bit like hearing Maria Callas sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” But the column he gave me in his magazine is called “Happy Warrior,” and we have at least that in common: He was a very happy warrior, a great twinkling beamer full of merriment who relished taking on the conventional opinions of a complacent establishment against all the odds. Forty-nine years ago, he wrote, “We must bring down the thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent, and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable.” It is an unending struggle because, while the facts of life are conservative (as his friend Margaret Thatcher put it), liberalism is eternally seductive. But, as they will tell you in the capitals of post-Communist Eastern Europe, the world is better off because William F. Buckley Jr. stood athwart history and changed its course.

An important contribution we ought not lose track of, he showed the Right that it was okay to have fun even while the future of civilization was at risk. Indeed, it was funny that the Left understands civilization so little that even as they put it at risk they think themselves "progressive." Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter may not have the best table manners, but they are funny. They are very much part of his legacy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 1, 2008 7:05 PM

When WFB flourished, you would occasionally see a column by some standard-issue liberal wondering why people thought WFB was smart. I remember one that offered the hypothesis that people mistook his accent for an English accent, and everyone knows how an English accent makes you sound smart.

Now, they can admit that people thought he was smart because he was smart, and attack the conservatives who flourish today for not being as smart.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at March 1, 2008 9:50 PM