Why revisit the memory of William F. Buckley Jr. so many days after so many others who knew him better have already paid him, if not the high tribute his work deserves, than at least as high a tribute as human words can climb?
As a Buckley fan who, like Ronald Reagan, owes his political soul to the quiet but armor-piercing wit of the Great Communicator's Great Communicator, I have that nagging feeling that a vital and timely corner of the vast Buckley canvas was left untouched by the niagara of praise that followed Buckley's death in late February of 2008.
Many commentators took us all the way to the "goal line" but didn't take us across.
Let me cross that goal line now to make that vital and timely point.
Almost every tribute to Buckley reminded us how gracious he was to his political adversaries. Buckley merciliessly dismantled those opinions he considered dangerous, diseased, misleading or incorrect. The hapless holders of those opinions, however, were treated according to a kind of rhetorical "Geneva Convention" invented by and practiced almost exclusively by Buckley himself.
Those whose opinions wound up impaled on the fearsome shards of Buckley's superior intellect were themselves treated to drinks, dinner, Bach solos on harpsichord performed by Buckley personally, and lectures on the history of the breed of dog the guest happened to admire or handling unexpected wind shifts while sailing your own boat across an ocean.
We all know how gracious Bill Buckley was to those of contrasting political opinions. The point here — vital and timely — is, it went deeper than that, much deeper.
In this political moment when a lot of inflential conservatives seem amost joyous in their frenzy to trash Sen. John McCain for his many and glaring departures from true conservaism, the behavior of Bill Buckley should be noted. While the conservatives who oppose McCain seem to be competing to show who can couch contempt for McCain in the most dramatic and prize-winning ways, let's go back to 1972 and watch Buckley in a strange kind of political action.
Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein was very far over on the left. Those not as far left as Lowenstein drew remarks from Buckley such as, "If he were any more to the left he'd belong in a zoo!" Lowenstein was one of the most effective anti-Vietnam War activists.
He founded and led the "Dump Johnson" movement, dedicated to stripping President Lyndon Johnson of enough support to persuade him not to run for re-election in 1968. Lowenstein's leftist militancy succeeded. Johnson declined to run for re-election.
In short, Cong. Allard Lowenstein exhibited many glaring departures from true conservatism; or any other kind of conservatism. And guess what! Democratic liberal Allard K. Lowenstein was endorsed for re-election by none other than William F. Buckley Jr.
Buckley explained that Al Lowenstein led a double life. In addition to his flaming leftist activism, Lowenstein spent a praiseworthy and highly unusual amount of time listening to his constituents' complaints and trying to redress their grievances and injustices one-to-one, face-to-face. And that, concluded Bill Buckley, indicated he should be rewarded with re-election.
In other words, ideology isn't everything!
Conservatives who declare they're going to vote for the Democratic candidate over Sen. John McCain to emphasize their dismay at his faux-conservatism remind me of Samsom bringing down the temple upon his own head. With a little less anger and a little adroit footwork, he could bring the temple down on their heads. Better an imperfect conservative than a perfect liberal.
Ask a true Buckley scholar for his favorite Bill Buckley quote and he'll throw himself on the floor and beg for a few week's time to go pearl-diving through a Mindanao-Deep of Buckley's verbal diamonds. In time I may shift my nomination in light of future discoveries from Buckey's works, but I have two Buckleyisms that have been among my family jewels since the 1960s.
Can you top these?
In 1959 American liberals were ecstatic over Soviet ruler Nikita Krushchev's impending visit to the United States. "When Krushchev sees the real America in action it'll be the end of the Cold War," they assured each other. Bill Buckley was unconvinced.
"Expecting Krushchev to call off the Cold War upon observing the real America," he wrote, "is rather like expecting the bishop of Rome to break the apostalic succession at the sight of a new YMCA in Canton, Ohio." (For non-Catholics; the bishop of Rome is the Pope himself!)
Then in the early 1960s a black militant publicly challenged Bill Buckley to debate American civil rights before the student body of the University of Moscow.
Buckley calmly replied, "I fail to see the relevance of debating American civil rights before an audience of slaves."
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