Has the passing of William F. Buckley Jr. sounded the death knell for American conservatism? His admirers and enemies are joined by political gurus, academicians, and plain-folk Republicans in pondering this question.
Undisputedly WFB (as Buckley was known by friends and associates) has left his mark on American political history and governance.
A case in point is his ambivalence on immigration — strongly influenced by his early childhood in Mexico, where Spanish became his first language. Buckley’s ambivalence has contributed to the current division in the United States on the issue of border control. A conservative free-thinker, WFB espoused varying positions on immigration. He favored “controlled migration” as a matter of import for U.S. security, culture, heritage, and survival.
Commentaries on his life tend to be marred by inaccuracies, especially in those penned by leftist pseudo-intellectuals and by those who simply despised not just the man but his politics, his immigration stance, his family, and his religion. WFB was at once a simplistic and complex thinker. He was unequivocal, however, on his religion and his belief that morality depends on personal responsibility and that government can not resolve all problems.
The Buckley Legacy
A cursory glance at three generations of Buckleys will serve to set the record straight and trace the roots of the WFB ambivalence on immigration.
John Buckley (died 1903). WFB’s paternal grandfather was an Irish immigrant by way of Canada, an entrepreneur, a lawyer, and a sheriff of Duval County, Texas. In the 1880s, Duval ranked among the most corrupt counties in the United States, as it does to this day. WFB noted that although John Buckley died in 1903, his vote was still registered in the notoriously corrupt 1948 election that put Lyndon “Landslide” Johnson in the U.S. Senate.
William Frank Buckley Sr. (1881–1958). William Buckley Sr. (WFB’s father) was born in Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas, the fourth of eight children. He grew up in Spanish-speaking Duval County and received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas.
With his two brothers, William Sr. engaged in oil speculation and in revolutions against various Mexican dictators, and it is said, making and losing several fortunes. Like John Buckley, William Sr. was a devout Catholic and an advocate of religious freedom — then being denied to Catholics who were persecuted in Mexico. Living the adventurous life of a cowboy-lawyer, William Sr. saved many persons from death at the hands of the Mexican government.
He was expelled from Mexico in 1921 for allegedly undermining the Obregon government. In 1924 under a new president, he was permitted to return and continue oil speculations, which he then moved to Venezuela. He continued international oil exploration into the 1950s. In 1917 William had married Aloise Steiner, a native of New Orleans of Swiss-German heritage. Her family had settled in the Crescent City prior to the Civil War. Educated at Sophie Newcomb (now part of Tulane University), she was fluent in French and Spanish.
Through various moves to and from Mexico, France, England, and finally to Sharon, Conn., and Camden, S.C., she retained her Southern graciousness and deep religious faith.
William F. Buckley Jr. (1925–2008). WFB was born in New York City, the sixth of 10 children of William Sr. and Aloise. During his early childhood, WFB was raised in Mexico, France, and England and learned to speak Spanish, French, and English, in that order. When he was thirteen, the Buckley family returned to the United States to reside in Sharon, Connecticut, where he and his siblings were enrolled in private schools. WFB served a two-year stint in the Army before entering Yale University, where, as an undergraduate, he established his conservative credentials as editor of the Yale Daily News and as a member of the Yale Debating Team. Upon graduation, he began the Conservative revolution by writing his first book, God and Man at Yale, (1951). That same year, he was recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and assigned to the Mexico City office under E. Howard Hunt (of later Watergate fame). Following his brief spy experience, he joined the staff of The Mercury magazine and then, with a loan from his father, formed the conservative journal, National Review, in 1955.
Although God and Man at Yale catapulted WFB into the national limelight, some critics hold that The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966), a commentary on his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, had more impact than his first work. During that 1965 campaign, when asked what he would do if elected mayor, he made his classic retort, “Ask for a recount.” His books on politics, sailing, and the adventures of fictional CIA agent Blackford Oakes reflected his multi-faceted personality.
His intellect, wit, charisma, and courage over the decades held at bay numerous opponents, endearing him to wide audiences — regardless of their national, political, or religious hue. His show, Firing Line, which ran from 1966 to 1999 as a televised version of the Oxford Debating Society, contributed to his international recognition as a “chevalier of intellectual diversity”.
The Immigration Morass
In retrospect, WFB’s position on immigration — legal and illegal — appears undulating and ubiquitous. This opinion is based on his writings, on his National Review commentaries, on critiques by friend and foe before and after his passing, and on one memorable meeting with him. In Miami in 1966, my wife and I met WFB following one of his lectures. He inquired about the conservatism of the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Claude Kirk, who went on to win the election, thus becoming the first Republican governor of Florida since the Reconstruction era.
The Buckley legacy had a subliminal role in the formation of WFB’s thinking, including his immigration views. Some critics trace WFB’s opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, including the Immigration & Naturalization Services Act of 1965 (INSA) and the Voting Rights Act, to Buckley’s southern heritage. As the grandson and son of bi-lingual Texans who had dealt firsthand with corruption in Mexico, WFB recognized the flaws in INSA that would open the floodgates to immigrants from Third-World countries. Despite his brilliance, he chose not to suggest a legislative resolution.
Commenting on the 2000 Republican Convention, WFB opined that the gathering “made it clear not only the need to commend the Republican Party to the favor of Hispanic voters, but also the evanescence in America of ethnocentrism.” Apparently he was referring to the speech delivered in Spanish and English by George Prescott Bush, son of then-Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) and nephew of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush. Off the convention floor, some Republicans were alarmed by the Hispanic overtones and criticized WFB for failing to stop this ethnocentric display. Some predicted that, as a result, Buckley’s American conservatism would become a lost cause.
In 2004 WFB wrote that, “Beginning in 1965, we simply surrendered on the subject of Western Hemisphere immigration.” He opined that the influx of millions of illegal aliens testified to the irresolution of U.S. immigration laws and the failure to enforce them. He linked the surrender of U.S. borders to illegal migrations to the Free Trade debate, and concluded that no new immigration laws would be able to resolve illegal entries.
In 2006, WFB announced his growing concern regarding an “immigration morass.” He projected that it will take three generations for illegal Mexicans to speak English fluently. He found U.S. border enforcement to be merely symbolic and National Guard deployment to the border, a purposeless waste of manpower. He questioned repeatedly the reality and effectiveness of the Employer Sanctions legislation and concluded that deportation of illegal aliens would be “as wrenching as the uprooting of blacks 300 years ago”. Border-control advocates, however, find distinctions: African slaves were involuntarily and cruelly migrated, whereas aliens detained in the United States for illegal entry are merely returned to their homelands — with close to an apology.
WFB acknowledged that U.S. employers wanted cheap labor and that the “usual agencies of compassion and anarchy” would do their best to shield illegal aliens. Finally he placed blame for the “immigration morass” on U.S. presidents and congresses of the previous thirty years for their delinquency in addressing illegal alien and border control problems.
On May 29, 2007, he referred to the pending “comprehensive” immigration legislation as “a mess.” He believed that the immigration bill sponsored by John McCain, R-Ariz., Teddy Kennedy, D-Mass., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., etc., “stabbed at the truth, but satisfied no one completely”. Referring to a comment by Richard Durbin (D-IL) that the bill had more opposition than support, WFB concluded that its major failure was being overlooked––the cultural differences between Mexico and the United States — thus drawing once again on the Buckley legacy. He predicted the bill would not become law.
Several months before his passing, WFB criticized the proposal by former-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, D-N.Y., to issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens. WFB agreed with the 9/11 Families for a Secure America organization that driver's licenses are “basic identification documents” used by terrorists “to aid and abet their terrorist activities”. Buckley said that the governor and his party will need to come up with measures more substantive to cope with the problem (illegal aliens driving) 1 a problem derived from “progressive assaults on the powers and responsibilities of nationhood.”
WFB, in the mode of Sir Thomas More, believed that in a civilized society the law, good or bad, must be obeyed. WFB held that failure to obey the law must result in defined penalties. He identified the failure of U.S. congresses from 1965 to the present to enact immigration legislation reflecting U.S. culture, heritage, and values as the cause of the present “immigration morass”. Yet William F. Buckley Jr. offered no simple solution to the illegal aliens crashing U.S. borders in waves that threaten the downfall of his beloved country. Recognizing the enormity of the problem, he left us with this caution: “Laws attempting to seal the border were in the tradition of King Canute ordering the tide to stop.”
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