The Magazine

A Christian Gentleman

Joseph Bottum on Buckley.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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In photographs from those days, the young William F. Buckley Jr. of the 1950s always seemed to have his legs stretched out--his feet up on a nearby chair, or a pile of books, or an open desk drawer. Slumped down, the phone squeezed to his ear by his shoulder, his fingers twiddling a pencil, he looked both involved and distant, caught up in the moment and a little bit removed, self-absorbed, and self-ironic: a 30-year-old man with a fairly clear idea of what his talent was worth and what it wasn't. He always seemed to be doing what he did and something more besides.

Perhaps that more is the key for understanding the man, who died last week at the age of 82. Obituary after obituary spoke of the tools he had used to help create the modern conservative movement: his compelling voice, his eloquent speeches, his good looks, his family wealth. As it happens, his voice wasn't really resonant; he talked through his teeth too much, the words all formed in the front of his mouth and pushed out by an act of will. For that matter, he wasn't classically eloquent; he often phrased things to draw attention to his phrasings, and from the beginning of his career to the end he fancied long words solely for the sake of his fancy. He wasn't even handsome, in truth: his grin lopsided, his eyes too small and too sleepy, his face somehow seeming to be wrapped further around his skull than it needed to be.

The money was real enough, and his wife Patricia's money (from a Vancouver lumber and mining fortune) was even realer. In 1955, his father could afford to give him $100,000--about $750,000 in today's money--to help start National Review, but even there the family wealth was less than a truly great fortune. The Buckleys were not the Rockefellers; they were just very rich people who had passed beyond the need to work for their bread, and the money mostly existed in William F. Buckley's life as yet another instrument by which he lived always in some way more.

What he did, in effect, was roll together his odd elocution, his elaborate vocabulary, his interesting looks, and his patrician background to create one of the great acts on the 20th-century American public stage. Look, for instance, at the photographs and film clips of the improvisational theater that was his 1965 race for mayor of New York--the campaign he entered when, after the Conservative party he had helped found offered him the nomination, he said, "I looked at it and thought, What the hell, this is kind of interesting."

During the race, he proved wittier and more fascinating, more of a genuine figure, than anyone in New York politics since Fiorello LaGuardia a generation before, and he seemed to fill the room during the campaign's televised debates: larger, cleverer, and sharper than his opponents could ever be. Oh, certainly, he was defeated without much difficulty; the New York audience didn't actually vote for him--but they did love watching him, and John Lindsay's chances of national success as a liberal Republican died in that campaign, eviscerated by Buckley's cool conservative critique.

Even his later account, The Unmaking of a Mayor--by far his best book--doesn't explain fully why he entered the race in 1965. In the end, the cause may have been nothing other than his constant desire to do something more. At the time, Buckley was 40 years old and National Review had been up and running for 10 years. With the wipeout of Barry Goldwater the previous fall, and Ronald Reagan's election as governor of California still over a year in the future, the way forward for the movement he was shepherding was not obvious. He seemed to want some new project to add to his already overfull life. His performance during the campaign was a revelation, and it set up his next great performance, as the host of the televised interview program Firing Line, which began in 1966. He wasn't always cool and collected. In a famous exchange on national television in 1968, he threatened to sock Gore Vidal in the face--"and you'll stay plastered"--for calling him a crypto-Nazi. But the effect of Buckley's star power was to give a cool look to conservatism and form the modern image of an intellectual movement.

His role as the great impresario of American conservatism has been well celebrated in his obituaries and the long tour of honors and farewell dinners with which he marked his final years. His role as the gatekeeper, too: banishing the John Birchers and the followers of Ayn Rand to the political fringe, and rooting out the remnants of a European-style anti-Semitic conservatism. (His long essay in National Review in 1991, "In Search of Anti-Semitism," remains his definitive statement.)

Along the way, many have remarked on his multiple lives. He had a rich man's existence, with the skiing in Switzerland and the sailing on the Atlantic and the parties on Park Avenue and the chauffeur-driven car coming into Manhattan from the estate in Connecticut. And then he had his writing life, creating the series of spy-thriller novels that began in 1976 with Saving the Queen and penning books about food and boating and his brief but depressing time at the United Nations. All the while, he had his pundit's career, writing three newspaper columns a week and taping his television show and editing National Review and giving 70 lectures a year and plotting political adventures with the powers that be.

It's enough to fill three lifetimes, and yet, somehow, in the accounts of all this, his Christian devotion seems almost to have disappeared. This was yet another of the simultaneous lives that he led, another string to his bow, and there was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when Buckley was also seen as the nation's leading Catholic layman.

His parents' Catholicism formed their children more significantly than anything else, and the family's experience rescuing priests during the anti-clerical Mexican revolution helped define for Buckley and his siblings their vision of themselves as radically opposed to the modern pattern of the world. It seemed perfectly in character when, at a talk at Catholic University in 1971, his sister Patricia responded to a suggestion that the Virgin Mary should have aborted the infant Jesus by storming the stage and slapping the speaker.

Buckley himself was never a professional Catholic, in the sense of someone who made his living from the fact of his faith, and his standing as a Catholic commentator declined when in 1961 National Review responded to John XXIII's encyclical on Christianity and social progress, Mater et Magistra, with the quip: "Mater si, Magistra no." Still, it was always there in his life, even if, on Firing Line, he most often used Malcolm Muggeridge as the designated Christian commentator.

Buckley could joke about his faith: He said of the deathbed conversion to Catholicism of his friend Frank S. Meyer that "the only remaining intellectual obstacle to his conversion was the collectivist implication lurking in the formulation 'the communion of saints' in the Apostles' Creed." And he could be serious: In reply to Garry Wills's claim that "being Catholic always mattered more to him than being conservative," Buckley responded, "If he meant he has a higher loyalty to God than to civil society, then the answer is obvious: God has to be pre-eminent." But he never let it go, even in his final months, darkened by the death of his wife, Patricia, in April 2007.

In the 1950s, he made an attempt to purchase the Catholic magazine Commonweal (through the agency of the political theorist James Burnham, whose brother Philip had been editor of the magazine). Those were different days, of course, in the glow of a Catholic renaissance that ran from the philosophical work of Jacques Maritain to the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, and Commonweal was a significant intellectual publication. It would be fascinating to observe what, in an alternate universe, William F. Buckley might have done as the editor of a Catholic intellectual journal instead of National Review.

Last week's obituaries--in the New York Times, for example, or the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times--all reduced his Catholicism to nothing more than a species, or at best a cause, of his political conservatism. This diminishment of his religious mind to political activism marks a loss in our understanding of how an intellectual life is made and how a full life is lived.

Full certainly describes William F. Buckley's life. With everything he did, he was always doing something more; with everything he was, he was always being something more--leading some further life, accomplishing some further goal, learning some further skill. He found fame young, and he sought fame hard, giving $10,000 to the publisher of his first book, God and Man at Yale, to use for advertising. But he never was just that famous man, any more than he was just a well-known political pundit, or a television celebrity, or a rich man's heir. And it was, more than anything else, his faith that gave him the more that defined him: a place to stand outside himself, a power to laugh, and a higher life to live.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.