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A Man of Incessant Labor

Christopher Hitchens on Buckley.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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"At his desk," wrote Christopher Buckley in his email to friends, "in Stamford this morning." Well, one had somehow known that it would have to be at his desk. The late William F. Buckley Jr. was a man of incessant labor and productivity, with a slight allowance made for that saving capacity for making it appear easy. But he was driven, all right, and restless, and never allowed himself much ease on his own account. There was never a moment, after taping some session at Firing Line, where mere recourse to some local joint was in prospect. He was always just about to be late for the next plane, or column, or speech, or debate. Except that he never was late, until last Wednesday.

Ahh, Firing Line! If I leave a TV studio these days with what Diderot termed l'esprit de l'escalier, I don't always blame myself. If I wish that I had remembered to make a telling point, or wish that I had phrased something better than I actually did, it's very often because a "break" was just coming up, or the "segment" had been shortened at the last minute, or because the host was obnoxious, or because the panel had been over-booked in case of cancellations but at the last minute every egomaniac invited had managed to say "yes" and make himself available. But on Buckley's imperishable show, if you failed to make your best case it was your own damn fault. Once the signature Bach chords had died away, and once he'd opened with that curiously seductive intro ("I should like to begin .  .  . "), you were given every opportunity to develop and pursue your argument. And if you misspoke or said anything fatuous, it was unlikely to escape comment. In my leftist days, if I knew I was going on the box with Buckley, I would make sure to do some homework (and attempt to emulate him by trying to make sure it didn't show).

He was in so many ways the man to beat. Facing him, one confronted somebody who had striven to take the "cold" out of the phrase "Cold War"; who had backed Joseph McCarthy, praised General Franco, opposed the Civil Rights Act, advocated rather than merely supported the intervention in Vietnam, and seemed meanwhile to embody a character hovering somewhere between Skull-and-Bones and his former CIA boss Howard Hunt. On the other hand, this was the same man who had picked an open fight with the John Birch Society, taken on the fringe anti-Semites and weirdo isolationists of the old Right, and helped to condition the Republican comeback of 1980. Was he really, as he had once claimed, yelling "stop" at the locomotive of history, or was he a closet "progressive"?

The Roman Catholicism that was always so central might seem to have offered a clue here, but this element also dissolved into ambiguities and approximations. "Faith" surely helped explain his solidarity with the Sovietized "captive nations" like Poland and Hungary and Latvia and Croatia, and even his sympathy for McCarthy and for the Diem family regime in Saigon (the last two allegiances being among the few that he shared with the Kennedy family). Yet it was in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal that he also declared in 1952 that he was in favor of "Big Government for the duration" of the struggle against communism, and in favor of this, moreover, even if it meant Democratic party stewardship. There were times when National Review seemed almost to be published by some legate of the Spellman archdiocese (one of James Burnham's successors as chief Cold War columnist, I remember, was actually named Crozier). But then, you never knew when you might be surprised. Buckley once teamed up with Clare Booth Luce to opine that dogmatic opposition to contraception ran the risk of discrediting moral abhorrence of abortion.

Scott Fitzgerald's old observation, about the need to be able to manage contradiction within oneself, is obviously germane here. One of the most startling discoveries to be made--it occurs in John Judis's excellent early biography of Buckley--is that Whittaker Chambers himself beseeched Buckley to have nothing to do with Senator McCarthy. In spite of such advice, and from such a source, Buckley went ahead and published McCarthy and His Enemies, a book that by no means erred on the critical side.

To take another example from a quite different point of the compass, Buckley was willing to be immensely friendly with figures from the gay Right, like the doomed congressman Bob Bauman of Maryland or the flamboyant Marvin Liebman, but nonetheless wrote a column in the early 1980s saying that promiscuous homosexuals with AIDS should be tattooed on the buttocks as a sort of health-warning. There was too much detail in that proposal, and it showed how hard it can be to reconcile conservatism--one of his self-definitions--with libertarianism (one of his alternate ones).

In devotional matters he could oscillate as well: He justified an interview with Playboy in 1970 by saying dryly that he wanted to be able to communicate with his son, but devoted a passage of one of his many books on sailing to the revelation that doctrinal and baptismal disputes might perforce keep him from seeing his own grandchildren.

Buckley's vivid and energetic career (try reading his memoir Overdrive without experiencing vertigo) may be read as a registry or working-out of precisely this sort of tension. And, I would add, an honest working-out. I think I was once privileged to see the process in action.

Some years ago, Peter Robinson invited us both to be guests on his show Uncommon Knowledge, which had been tipped as a sort of successor to Firing Line. The subject was a retrospective of "The Sixties," and the question to each of us was: What did we most regret about the positions we had held then? I won't bore you with my answers. Buckley said that he now wished that the United States had never become involved in Vietnam to begin with, and added that he would still oppose the passage of the Civil Rights Act but not in the same terms or for the same reasons as he had then. (His updated view was that the legislation had caused more trouble than it was worth--"like the Civil War.")

At the time I was a little stunned by both admissions, but I can also see how they make sincere self-critical sense. Vietnam was too much of that "big government" that he had reluctantly accepted, and state-enforced civil rights took too little account of the libertarian principles that were dear to him. In a sort of coda to the sixties, it was National Review that published the first major symposium calling for the decriminalization of at least the "softer" narcotics.

Buckley's return to a version of rightist isolationism in the matter of Iraq in the last few years can be fairly easily analyzed in the same terms, of profound skepticism if not indeed pessimism about large state-sponsored or state-sponsoring schemes. (I recall teasing him about his famous 1968 debate with Gore Vidal, and pointing out that this angry joust was actually between two former young enthusiasts for Charles Lindbergh and "America First." The irony here is also at Vidal's expense.) Bill's gift for friendship with some liberals--John Kenneth Galbraith most notably--was the counterpart of his challenge to their monopoly on the word "intellectual."

His slightly affected distaste for modernity did not inhibit him from becoming an early star in the meretricious world of television. Having inaugurated his show in 1966, and eventually wondering how to wind it up, he closed it in 1999 thus giving it the magic lifetime (or so I suspect) of what the old hymn calls "three-and-thirty years." And he decided to go out in a blaze of tedium, with a debate on the campus of "Ole Miss" at Oxford, on the propriety or otherwise of taxing Internet commerce! I was honored to be invited and, as always, stayed up the night before to do my homework. William F. Buckley Jr. was never solemn except or unless on purpose, and seldom if ever flippant where witty would do, and in saying this I hope I pay him the just tribute that is due to a serious man.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography.