Thursday, August 18, 2011

William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008)

In the early 70’s I watched Los Angeles television channels (2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13) on a little black and white TV, no remote control, and would, while searching for Gilligan’s Island or other such show, happen upon a boring man sitting diagonally in his chair. Inexplicably I would linger on this station while I tried to figure out who was this man with the smirked face, who mumbled while either touching his face or poking it with a pencil, all while attempting to recline almost crossways in his chair. He wore his tie loosely and had short hair for the times, slightly out of place but not buzzed. I was captivated by his language, though I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He had an interesting accent and used big words that sounded like English crossed with Latin. Easily I would watch him until roused by the next commercial break. This was my first exposure to Firing Line hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. (WFB).

Over the years I have been too busy to follow WFB as closely as I would have liked and wished I had the time to continue my subscription to National Review beyond the early 90’s. When I learned of his death I knew that I had to find the time to more fully understand this man that I had found to be so interesting. So almost three years after Buckley died I finally chose six of his books to read:

God & Man at Yale
Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches
Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith
Cancel your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes and Asides from National Review
Saving the Queen: A Blackford Oakes Mystery
Since so much already has been written about WFB, the man who used words like Thelonious Monk used notes, I will not write much more. WFB may not have been correct about every opinion that he held (he didn't like the Beatles) but what matters more to me is the way that he went about forming and sharing his opinions. He always offered clear logic for all to scrutinize, even his faith in Catholicism was logical. And he had style. In retort to a man who had written a rude letter to National Review, WFB didn’t merely reply by calling this writer an ass, but instead proffered a more subdued, “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, ass.” But for the most part he debated his opponents with civility, respect and logic, not declamations; Although I did burst out laughing when WFB interviewed Noam Chomsky:

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: I rejoice in your disposition to argue the Vietnam question, especially when I recognize what an act of self-control this must involve.
NOAM CHOMSKY: It does.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Sure.
NOAM CHOMSKY: It really does. I mean, I think that it’s the kind of issue where —-
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: And you’re doing very well. You’re doing very well.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Sometimes I lose my temper. Maybe not tonight.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Maybe not tonight, because as you would, I’d smash you in the goddamn face. (WFB winked at the camera.)
Too funny! Find the clip. Listen to as much WFB as you can find. Study him. Enjoy him.

Buckley's debate with Reagan regarding the Panama Canal exemplifies how to debate civilly.

Of the WFB books I have read, the one that I would most recommend would be, Let Us Talk of Many Things.

William F. Buckley was another of life's originals, perhaps the key conservative of the 20th century. His arguments are worthy of being studied. Here are a few short Buckley quotes for fun:

"I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 2000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."

"The academic community has in it the biggest concentration of alarmists, cranks and extremists this side of the giggle house."

On grammar rules: "The general rule is not to begin a sentence with "and"; the particular rule is that writers with a good ear know when to break the general rule."

"I would like to take you seriously, but to do so would affront your intelligence."

"Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive."

"One must bear in mind that the expansion of federal activity is a form of eating for politicians."

"The more complicated and powerful the job, the more rudimentary the preparation for it."
"Truth is a demure lady, much too ladylike to knock you on your head and drag you to her cave. She is there, but people must want her, and seek her out."

"The amount of money and of legal energy being given to prosecute hundreds of thousands of Americans who are caught with a few ounces of marijuana in their jeans simply makes no sense - the kindest way to put it. A sterner way to put it is that it is an outrage, an imposition on basic civil liberties and on the reasonable expenditure of social energy."
"Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great."

"I won't insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said."
"To fail to experience gratitude when walking through the corridors of the Metropolitan Museum, when listening to the music of Bach or Beethoven, when exercising our freedom to speak, or ... to give, or withhold, our assent, is to fail to recognize how much we have received from the great wellsprings of human talent and concern that gave us Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, our parents, our friends. We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us. We must remember them in our thoughts and in our prayers; and in our deeds.

"I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth."

"Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi."