The Magazine

A Man of Incessant Labor

Christopher Hitchens on Buckley.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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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.