William F. Buckley, Jr. Left Us Three Years Ago Today

My memory is like an album compiled by an inept photographer. It contains thousands of fuzzy, badly cropped images of moments in my life that were not particularly significant or consequential but that the photographer, for some arcane reason, thought worth preserving.  One of these is the moment when I discovered that I didn't dislike William F. Buckley, who died three years ago today.

It was a Saturday afternoon in the early 1970's. I had idly turned on the television set and come upon a PBS broadcast of an Oxford Union debate between John Kenneth Galbraith and William F. Buckley, Jr. The topic, "that the market is a snare and a delusion," didn't make much sense to me but I stayed to watch because I disliked both participants.

I don't think I have to explain my loathing for Galbraith . His famous condescending sneer, as if discounting his audience as his obvious intellectual inferiors, was so exquisitely honed that he should have patented it. But my mild dislike for Buckley, in despite of our aligned political viewpoints, was hard to explain. True, he came from a wealthy family, which seemed sufficient grounds for dislike, but it was rather his manner that irritated me. Perhaps I felt that his lounging casualness, his nonchalant Brahminish drawl, his little conceits, like using impossibly recondite words with a little wink to the audience as if it were a mutual joke -- all this suggested that he wasn't really serious, that contemplating the future of the free world was just a rich man's idle pastime. 

Galbraith's opening speech was oddly uncharacteristic. He seemed to be straining to affect a bantering facetious style that he found uncomfortable. Buckley was obviously more at ease with this sort of verbal showmanship. I guessed that the ground rules for an Oxford Union debate were that one wasn't supposed to address the topic seriously but rather to display one's style. I continued to watch, half cynically amused, half bored.

Then, in the final rebuttal, Buckley abruptly changed his tone. He now seemed close to tears. His final argument was that, even if the market was a delusion, the little bits of freedom that survived should be cherished and protected. He quoted Ilya Ehrenburg  as saying that, even if socialism covered the whole world with concrete, one day a blade of grass would break through and the crust would crack apart. He pleaded with us to spare the seed of that blade of grass.

Stunned, I sensed that the mask had dropped off and that he was in dead earnest. He believed (as I did) that the Soviets were winning and that he was fighting a losing battle. His wittiness was gallows humor. His casual air was the jauntiness of courage facing inevitable defeat. I felt that I had found a friend.

Regrettably, in the decades that followed, I rarely read or even thought of Buckley. My personal concerns eclipsed my interest in politics until, by the 1990's, it appeared that Reagan had saved us and we could relax. And in recent years, I may have unconsciously relegated Buckley to the status of a beloved elder statesman, fit more for fond memories than active attention.

His death came as an unpleasant shock. I suppose I thought he would last forever. Everything about the reports of his death was grim: the loss of a beloved wife, the diabetes, the ugliness of terminal emphysema. The fact that he was working up to the end seems to show that he was still concerned about the state of the country and the world. I would guess that he was just as pessimistic about our chances for survival as he had been on that day long ago at Oxford. Perhaps death came as a relief.

God rest ye, merry gentleman. We miss you.
My memory is like an album compiled by an inept photographer. It contains thousands of fuzzy, badly cropped images of moments in my life that were not particularly significant or consequential but that the photographer, for some arcane reason, thought worth preserving.  One of these is the moment when I discovered that I didn't dislike William F. Buckley, who died three years ago today.

It was a Saturday afternoon in the early 1970's. I had idly turned on the television set and come upon a PBS broadcast of an Oxford Union debate between John Kenneth Galbraith and William F. Buckley, Jr. The topic, "that the market is a snare and a delusion," didn't make much sense to me but I stayed to watch because I disliked both participants.

I don't think I have to explain my loathing for Galbraith . His famous condescending sneer, as if discounting his audience as his obvious intellectual inferiors, was so exquisitely honed that he should have patented it. But my mild dislike for Buckley, in despite of our aligned political viewpoints, was hard to explain. True, he came from a wealthy family, which seemed sufficient grounds for dislike, but it was rather his manner that irritated me. Perhaps I felt that his lounging casualness, his nonchalant Brahminish drawl, his little conceits, like using impossibly recondite words with a little wink to the audience as if it were a mutual joke -- all this suggested that he wasn't really serious, that contemplating the future of the free world was just a rich man's idle pastime. 

Galbraith's opening speech was oddly uncharacteristic. He seemed to be straining to affect a bantering facetious style that he found uncomfortable. Buckley was obviously more at ease with this sort of verbal showmanship. I guessed that the ground rules for an Oxford Union debate were that one wasn't supposed to address the topic seriously but rather to display one's style. I continued to watch, half cynically amused, half bored.

Then, in the final rebuttal, Buckley abruptly changed his tone. He now seemed close to tears. His final argument was that, even if the market was a delusion, the little bits of freedom that survived should be cherished and protected. He quoted Ilya Ehrenburg  as saying that, even if socialism covered the whole world with concrete, one day a blade of grass would break through and the crust would crack apart. He pleaded with us to spare the seed of that blade of grass.

Stunned, I sensed that the mask had dropped off and that he was in dead earnest. He believed (as I did) that the Soviets were winning and that he was fighting a losing battle. His wittiness was gallows humor. His casual air was the jauntiness of courage facing inevitable defeat. I felt that I had found a friend.

Regrettably, in the decades that followed, I rarely read or even thought of Buckley. My personal concerns eclipsed my interest in politics until, by the 1990's, it appeared that Reagan had saved us and we could relax. And in recent years, I may have unconsciously relegated Buckley to the status of a beloved elder statesman, fit more for fond memories than active attention.

His death came as an unpleasant shock. I suppose I thought he would last forever. Everything about the reports of his death was grim: the loss of a beloved wife, the diabetes, the ugliness of terminal emphysema. The fact that he was working up to the end seems to show that he was still concerned about the state of the country and the world. I would guess that he was just as pessimistic about our chances for survival as he had been on that day long ago at Oxford. Perhaps death came as a relief.

God rest ye, merry gentleman. We miss you.