Bill Buckley, RIP
Tibor R. Machan
William F. Buckley, Jr., has died, at age 82. I want to reflect a bit on him because he was the persons whose writing awoke in me my political passions.
In 1960 or 61 I was in the US Air Force, stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C., and among the many more or less serious reading materials I ran across an article by Mr. Buckley in Esquire magazine. It was titled, “Why Don’t We Complain.” Its thesis, advanced by means of a couple of anecdotes, was that when people fail to speak up about matters that amiss, they get all pent up and eventually lose their cool. Like when they tolerate fuzzy pictures at a theater instead of getting up to ask that they be repaired right away; or when a railroad car is overheated and no one complains but then when the conductor comes around he gets mobbed.
This was, of course, a fairly lightweight analysis of one of the sources of revolution. I found it right on the money. I read the piece while flying west and immediately penned a short note of congratulation and sent it to the offices of National Review. I also decided to subscribe to that magazine, although by then I knew I was not quite a conservative.
Buckley replied to my note and we began a correspondence that had lasted for many decades. When I once asked why he makes use of such erudite vocabulary in making his points, he said that the folks who need convincing are the erudite ones. We argued about God and about whether Ayn Rand had philosophical and literary merits. I was very annoyed with his repeated publication of an essay, in which he claimed that Rand’s first best seller, The Fountainhead, is popular because of the “fornicating bits,” which was quite silly as well as false.
In time I managed to get invited to appear on Firing Line, his long running interview program on PBS TV, where I was very well treated and pitted against one of Mr. Buckley’s favorite intellectuals, Ernest van den Haag, who became a friend until his death a few years ago at age 86.
At the time when I appeared on Firing Line, I also interviewed Buckley for Reason magazine, which had a short history of interviews with prominent men and women concerned about the free society—Nathaniel Branden, F. A. Hayek, Thomas Szasz, Edith Efron, Yale Brozen, Milton Friedman, Paul Craig Roberts and James Buchanan were some others whom I and others at Reason managed to interview for the magazine.
One of Buckley’s most impressive performances occurred at the Cambridge Union, in England, where he debated John Kenneth Galbraith, who was an old adversary as well as close friend of his. In this debate Buckley came off as a dedicated individualist (and trounced Galbraith good and hard). And that to me was more important than some of his more conservative notions, so despite the fact that I found a good deal of what he wrote difficult to take, I remained a fan.
Once when I visited Buckley at National Review’s offices, I noticed that while all dressed up in black tie, his fly was open, so I pulled him aside to let him know. He was very thankful and we had a nice laugh about it all. This was in line with his mainly gracious and jovial personality.
American conservatives are not like others who simply embrace a method of reasoning about public affairs, namely, to consult tradition and be guided by it. That is unprincipled. American conservatism is tied to the ideas of the Founders. Buckley was indeed an American conservative. He did, in my view, combine his loyalty to the Founders with some infelicitous convictions but he must be credited with fostering a long overdue post-New Deal awareness of what America is really about, namely, the rights and sovereignty of the individual human being. I will forever be grateful to him for that.