Firing Lines

There's a sad irony to my blog timing today: just a couple of hours after posting about the ongoing idiocies of Tim Russert, I saw the news that William F. Buckley, Jr. had died. My politics were almost completely opposed to Buckley's (especially on topics like McCarthyism), and the pernicious effects that National Review continues to have on American discourse, as both ongoing journal and model for neo-con obfuscation and arrogance, can't be denied. At the same time, I felt a genuine sadness, as if a graceful family member, a lovably wry uncle or something, had passed away.

That connection is probably not coincidental: much of my family is more conservative than I am, and National Review and Buckley's various novels were often littered around my parents' and grandparents' homes. I remember many ads for the magazine running on daytime TV as a child (including one with Tom Selleck praising the magazine's jokes: "It's a very funny magazine!," Magnum guffawed). And Buckley himself seemed to be a constant televisual presence, his New England accent, playfully snobbish demeanor and crinkly smile making him a real-life Charles Emerson Winchester III.

As a presence, Buckley was a study in contradictions: simultaneously charming and reactionary, welcoming and dismissive, playful and moralistic. He was, until the end of his life, a genuine conservative-- a believer in small government, in national service, and individual rights, and eventually an opponent of the Iraq War and its ballooning follies and fallacies. At the same time, the journal he founded has often housed some of the worst excesses and most idiotic voices (George Will, David Brooks) of the neo-conservative movement that would pervert and eventually destroy conservatism (Buckley himself once penned a strange defense of Joseph McCarthy, a kind of forerunner to today's conservative mea culpas). One could be charmed by Buckley's style, and forget that it acted as a Trojan horse for policies that were often fairly destructive.

I suspect, in a way, that contradiction was the point: more than anything-- agree or disagree with him-- Buckley seemed to relish debate and genuine conversation, to take intellect seriously in a way that looks almost alien today. His sparing with Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky, his provocative magazine pieces or book-length essays, his droll epater le bourgeois (on PBS, no less!) worked to stimulate that discussion, to open up the American political discourse to a battle of ideas. That I disagreed with nearly all of his positions isn't the point: Buckley seemed like someone it would've been genuinely interesting to talk to, about politics, literature, or a Brahms concerto. And in that, he will be missed. R.I.P., William F. Buckley, Jr.


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