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'Civil' William F. Buckley Refined Politics

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Monday, 17 Oct 2016 01:38 PM Current | Bio | Archive

In the fall of 1965, I was one of many teenagers handing out flyers on Brooklyn street corners promoting the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor of New York City, William F. Buckley Jr.

In public forums, Buckley annihilated his dull leftist opponents — Republican John V. Lindsay and Democrat Abraham Beame — with his biting wit and cogent analysis of the ills that plagued the City. Buckley, the New York Daily News declared, takes his liberal opponents “apart so skillfully that you’ll long be hearing their shrieks of fear and hatred.”

Buckley may have lost the election, but he refuted the prevailing liberal view that conservatives were nothing more than a bunch of redneck crackpots and he helped regain respect for the movement nationwide one year after the Goldwater debacle.

Nearly as important, Bill proved that politics could be fun. As the liberal columnist Murray Kempton wrote: “The process which coarsens every other man who enters it only refined Mr. Buckley.”

The Buckley candidacy also inspired a generation of young conservatives. In my case, I joined my high school debating team, took a serious interest in public policy issues, subscribed to National Review and consumed Buckley’s books.

Buckley taught me that when engaged in intellectual conflicts with liberals, be prepared and go after one’s opponent with style and humor. Here are examples of the Buckley approach: When asked in 1967 why Senator Robert F. Kennedy would not appear on his show "Firing Line," he quipped, “Why does baloney reject the grinder.”

On the politics of Eleanor Roosevelt he uttered, “following [her] in search of irrationality was like following a burning fuse in search of an explosive; one never had to wait very long.”

And on his longtime liberal foe, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “I shall always be glad to give publicity to any lapse by Professor Schlesinger into sanity, and do not worry that such a guarantee will heavily mortgage my future time.”

Buckley also taught me to be civil, which my friend Brad Miner defined in his book, "The Compleat Gentleman," as “the extension and expansion of individual gallantry.”

This side of Buckley is found in a newly-published collection of his writings, "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the 20th Century," edited by James Rosen, Chief Washington Correspondent for Fox News.

Rosen, whose previous work includes the critically-acclaimed biography of U.S. attorney general John Mitchell of Watergate fame, is a product of the streets of New York City and a lifelong Buckley fan.

In a "Torch Kept Lit," Rosen has assembled 75 of Buckley’s best eulogies and obituaries of “the famous and obscure, the heroic and villainous, the charmed and doomed.”

Organized thematically with insightful Rosen introductions, each selection “demonstrates Buckley’s mastery of the elusive art form of the eulogy.” He used his eulogies, Rosen observes, as “a final chance to savor the deceased as he had.   . . . [He] recalled memorable moments spent with the departed, revealed their hidden sides, heralded their greatness—or as occasion warranted, reminded the living why certain individuals, notwithstanding the grace that death can bestow, should be remembered as abject failures or, worse still, evil.”

Reading the eulogies, I once again realized why friends and foes alike admired Buckley—he was a gentleman. He believed in civil discourse and could display affection and loyalty with those he vigorously disagreed. National Review’s Senior Editor, Richard Brookhiser, got it right when he said Buckley “attacked people for their ideas not for their personal qualities.”

For instance, on his mayoral opponent John V. Lindsay, Buckley wrote after his death in 2001, “He was a dashing figure who’d have done better as a star then as a tribune. And he always, or nearly always, gave theatrical satisfaction, and that’s not something to be lightly dismissed.”

On his old foe, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., (1917-2007): “He was a liberal partisan, but he did not turn a blind eye to transgressions by accommodationist liberals who permitted themselves to follow the Communist Party line. He was devastating in his expulsion of them from his movement, which he served more diligently then perhaps any other human being in modern history.”

James Rosen has performed a great service. The eulogies will reveal to a new generation of conservatives that Buckley was more than a celebrity. He was a great writer, an intellectual powerhouse, and the undisputed leader of the post-World War II conservative movement.

Reading these wonderful sketches also reminded me how much I miss the man I had the privilege of calling a friend for the last 25 years of his life.

George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact." He also is a columnist for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. Read more reports from George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.


 

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Buckley taught me to be civil. Buckley was more than a celebrity. He was a great writer, an intellectual powerhouse, and the undisputed leader of the post-World War II conservative movement. I miss the man I had the privilege of calling a friend.
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