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The “Charm” of William F. Buckley


Buckley on Firing Line in 1969 cheerfully offers to “punch” Noam Chomsky “in the goddamn face.” What makes this clip especially interesting is that, Buckley’s quip aside, Chomsky’s opinion on the Vietnam War and its effects on American society turned out to be the right one. Buckley isn’t even in the game on the issue.


Buckley, not cheerful at all, threatens Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic convention, ““Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” This may have been shocking behavior in 1968, but it’s pretty much the way it’s done now, Buckley’s example having been picked up and fully exploited by people like Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, and O’Reilly.

Andrew Sullivan is the only conservative I trust on a daily basis because he is intelligent, scrupulous in his opinions, and possesses real journalistic talent. He is pragmatic in a way that is progressive in outlook if not in policy.

However, there is one thing about Sullivan that is baffling: his surprisingly conventional estimation of William F. Buckley’s legacy. In a post today Sullivan, citing Terry Teachout, entertains the notion that it is due to his “charm.” I understand that in conservative circles Buckley, since his death three years ago, is regarded as St. Patrick driving slithering entities like the John Birch Society away from any position of influence in the post-Goldwater conservative revival. But “charming”? He was nasty, always: any random clip from Firing Line (like the one with Noam Chomsky above) will confirm as much. Buckley set the standard for supercilious contempt for opposition, with displays of a divine right to verbal violence, which is currently about the only way conservatives in the public eye seem to communicate.

Putting hero-worship aside, here’s an article from Spy magazine published in July 1989. It makes clear that by the 1980s, during the Reagan ascendancy when his influence should have been at its peak, Buckley was a fading cult figure whose diminishing influence was sustained mostly by his belligerent self-regard and the slowing momentum of his glory years in the 1950s and 60s.

This paragraph from “The Boys Who Would Be Buckley” has always stayed with me. It captures the fraying noblesse oblige of Buckley’s National Review, whose offices, on author Bob Mack’s account, seemed to emit the geriatric odor of whiskey and gingivitis:

Still, [new editor John] O’Sullivan faces a daunting task: the deadwood. . .is thick; the atmosphere is musty, quaint and lazy, and a tone of genteel racism endures. This attitude is usually expressed in a third-floor conference room, at the bi-weekly editorial meetings and the usual end-of-the-day cocktail hours that are held there. “There’s this insularity,” says one former NR editorial assistant about the events that occurred in that room, “where you feel among friends who all think the same way you do. You can even express your true feelings about something that, in another situation, you would be more guarded about. This was especially true when Bill was away.” On which subjects have true feelings been expressed? Well, senior editors Sobran and Jeffery Hart have swapped jokes about crematoriums and gas chambers. Race relations is also a popular subject. In November 1986 NR ran a cover story, “Blacks and the GOP: Just Called to Say I Love You,” that outlined possible GOP strategies for attracting black voters. Presiding over the traditional post-issue recap, Buckley quipped, “Maybe it should have been titled, ‘Just Called to Say I Love You, Niggah.'” During another editorial meeting, Jeffery Hart reflected wistfully that “under a real government, Bishop [Desmond] Tutu would be a cake of soap.”


Blogging “Anatomy of Criticism”

Jonathan McCalmont at Ruthless Culture and a number of other bloggers will be posting on Anatomy of Criticism, beginning March 7th:

few of us are going to be blogging about Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  We are each going to take it in turns to write a position paper on a particular section of the book and then post it and discuss it over at Maureen Kincaid Speller’s blog Paper Knife.  The first essay is due to go up on the seventh of March.  I’ll link to it when it goes up but if you are looking for an excuse to read through a classic work of literary criticism and discuss it, then this is your chance.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 18


Dieric Bouts the Elder, Elijah in the Desert, ca. 1465

Lecture 18. February 17, 1948

In tragedy, something comes through directly, a vision beyond that of the social and the moral.  Iago is a figure in a tragedy but he is not heroic.  Macbeth is an experiment in a tragedy where the hero and the villain are the same person.  Emotions of pity for the hero through the reproach of the audience somewhere; for example, they blame Iago.  In a social tragedy, such as the lynching of a negro, the audience is morally condemned for tolerating such cruelty.  A tragedy in which man is innocent and blames God for the scheme of things is not a real tragedy.  Even Henley’s Invictus—“I am captain of my soul”—is still handing out a high moral line.

Job gets past this morality stage.  He will not condemn himself, and therefore his three friends have nothing more to say.  At this point, Job leaves the moral aspect and goes on to the tragic.  Elihu has an organic role because he brings the tragedy to a focus.

The arguments with the friends are based on law.  Wisdom means following the tried and tested ways––the fool is he who breaks away, etc.  Yet, the law has not brought Job the wisdom he wants.

Elihu is the Old Testament conception of the prophet.  He has no personal authority––I must speak; therefore it is God talking to you.  The three friends are the old men of Job’s generation.  Elihu is the young spirit of prophecy.  He condemns Job on grounds that are implicit rather than implicit.  He places the condemnation on a broader basis and comes closer to the doctrine of original sin: Job is condemned because he exists.  Elihu deals with the “otherness” of God from man.  This is the first step in religious feeling, the sense of the opposition of the divine and the human; the feeling that man cannot reach God through the human means of reason, etc.

God himself breaks in on Elihu’s speech and pushes him aside.  It sounds as if God was merely continuing his speech, but he turns it upside down.  The same thing is being said, but from a different quarter.  Elihu has found the scent somehow or other.  The voice which is outside Job is Elihu, but when the voice is inside Job, it is God.  The Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind, the symbol of confusion.  It is confusion in terms of what is going on around him.  That is, out of Elihu’s words without knowledge and the confusion they create in Job, comes God’s voice.

Elijah is the typical prophet, and Elihu’s name is close to his.  Kings 1:19:  Elijah repeats Jesus’ period in the wilderness and also Moses’ exile, so that he is the Law and the Prophet.  Verse 9:  the word of the Lord is represented by the pronoun “he.”  And he said unto him, “What doest thou here, Elijah?”  The action turns inside Elijah.  He goes through the wind, earthquake, fire and doesn’t find God in any of them.  But it is after the fire that there comes “a still small voice.”

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