Bill Buckley and half a century of American conservatism.
Aug 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 44 • By CHARLES R. KESLER
William F. Buckley announced recently that he is giving up public speaking, but he has softened the blow by publishing Let Us Talk of Many Things, a collection of his best speeches from a half century's lectures, debates, testimonials, and eulogies.
There can hardly be a conservative who hasn't heard Buckley speak, in person or on television, and who hasn't cheered (and playfully imitated) Buckley's distinctive, ah, cadences. For decades, he crisscrossed America, speaking seventy or more times a year on behalf of conservatism, while in his spare time hammering out a thrice-weekly column, hosting the weekly television series Firing Line, editing National Review, and writing about a book a year, many of them bestsellers. He is the most indefatigable and probably the most famous American lecturer since Mark Twain.
His achievement is all the more stunning because this is not an age friendly to forensic excellence. Wagner's music, Twain quipped, is better than it sounds. Most modern speeches are the opposite. They are much worse than they sound. But Buckley's speeches are superbly readable. Full of argument, wit, and occasionally drama, they provide lessons for aspiring orators and speechwriters. Although not political speeches in the narrow sense (and many of the most charming are not about politics at all), they provide a trenchant history of American politics, the Cold War, and the conservative movement over the last half of the twentieth century.
Readers of Buckley's spy novels and newspaper columns expect his kind of moral commentary, and they will not be disappointed with Let Us Talk of Many Things. What is surprising, however, is how personally revealing these speeches are. Framed by their newly written introductions, they are scenes from the autobiography that Buckley has never written. Though he has afforded us, before, several book-length glimpses of a week in his busy life, he has never before shown us that life in long profile. David Brooks, in his foreword to the volume, argues that "for all Buckley's contributions to conservative ideas, his most striking contribution is to the conservative personality. He made being conservative attractive and even glamorous." But this book exhibits, too, Buckley's lifelong love for ideas; it shows how, to a remarkable degree, he devoted his personality to the service of his principles.
As a boy, Buckley imbibed deeply from the aristocratic anti-statism of Albert Jay Nock, the editor and essayist who was a friend of Buckley's father. Before reporting to college, Buckley spent two years in the army at the end of World War II. Like many veterans, he was more impressed by the absurdities of army life than by its spirited solidarity. When he arrived at Yale in 1946, he was a young man in a hurry, grateful to be dwelling amid a community of scholars and away from "those noisy martinets" at boot camp, yet keenly aware of the fragility of freedom and of the life of reason in a world imperiled first by the Nazis and now the Communists.
At Yale he encountered not only leftist economics and irreligion -- which he later excoriated in his first book, God and Man at Yale -- but also Willmoore Kendall, the young political scientist who became his mentor. Kendall was Nock's opposite in almost every respect: He was a kind of democrat, a student of Rousseau and of majoritarianism, who taught that every society is by necessity a closed society, defined by a consensus of opinion on right and wrong, noble and base, us and them. Even the most open society, averred Kendall, is in fact closed, because it has effectively made up its mind that openness is good. If it hasn't, then it won't remain an open society very long.
Every society had an orthodoxy, according to Kendall, and societies could be judged by the quality or soundness of their ruling opinions. The standard by which to rank different societies was not abstract freedom but some civilized combination of virtue, utility, and tradition (concerning which Kendall was a little vague). Nonetheless, he was clear that democratic societies ultimately depended for their survival on virtuous majorities, prepared to defend their way of life. Not every majority in every land was sufficiently competent, of course, which was why democracy was a rare plant. Institutional safeguards, procedural guarantees, and rights talk might palliate but could not cure the problems of democracy. Liberals who believed otherwise were naive.