Let Us Talk of Many Things
The Collected Speeches
by William F. Buckley Jr.
Prima, 544 pp., $ 30
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.
When Buckley burst upon the public scene in the early 1950s, he put these theories to work. Influenced further by Ortega y Gasset, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk, Buckley stood foursquare against American liberalism's "mania" for method -- its belief in progressive education, which de-emphasized the content of learning; liberalism's faith in "the democratic process," easily reducible to majority rule and suitable for quick export; and its infinite enthusiasm for due process of law, regardless of imminent threats to the republic.
Buckley's criticisms of Yale and his defense of senator Joseph McCarthy were thus of a piece. In each case, Buckley responded to a threat to American orthodoxy: creeping relativism and socialism in the classroom, indifference to Communist infiltration in Washington and Hollywood. But what was most insidious about these threats, in his view, was the disguise of principle that they wore.
Buckley grappled, even in the 1950s, with the characteristic conservative tensions between individual freedom and social order, and his reasoning as well as his conclusions remain important. In modifying his early antistatism, he understood himself to be appealing from one part of the American tradition to another. "How might we reconcile the American heritage of opposition to distorted growth in the state," he asked, "with the august, aspirant movement in which the Founding Fathers plighted their trust?" How to combine, in other words, the Founders' distrust of state power with their own exercise of it on behalf of republican, constitutional government?
It was clear to Buckley that Nock's "impulse to categorical renunciation" of politics ran up against America's "sovereign historical responsibility" in the postwar years to defend itself, and freedom, against Communist tyranny. That defense required, among other things, the use of counterintelligence and espionage, which Buckley upheld (he had himself served briefly in the CIA) as a "moral art." He deplored those, such as the ultra-libertarian Murray Rothbard, who were "so much the captive of anti-statist obsession" that they "loudly professed" that they couldn't distinguish "between the leaders of the Soviet Union and the leaders of the United States." Buckley cooly replied: "The man who pushes an old lady into the path of an oncoming truck, and the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of an oncoming truck, are not to be denounced evenhandedly as men who push old ladies around."
Buckley's larger point was that politics is a moral art, the prudent use of dangerous powers for the sake of civilized ends and the good society. The "proper challenge of conservatives is to tame the state," he advised, to habituate and limit it to its proper ends, not to abolish it. In effect, he resorted to the Founders' statecraft as a model of the political art, as a whole within which anti-statism would be a part; and only a part. But he leaves this an implication and, at least in these speeches, has little to say about the political handiwork by which the Founders sought actually to tame the state, namely, the Constitution.
Buckley has surprisingly few political heroes. Although he discourses at length on Winston Churchill, and adverts to Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, and others, he doesn't view politics principally as the cockpit of statesmanship, nor does he feel the need always to view events from the standpoint of the great-souled man. Perhaps his good friend Ronald Reagan comes closest to being Buckley's political hero, but Buckley is in no danger of confusing him with Pericles. As a survivor and critic of the twentieth century, Buckley remains more impressed by the evil that government can do than by the good. His heroes are the thinkers who make civilization and, incidentally, conservatism possible -- among his contemporaries, men such as James Burnham, Milton Friedman, and Whittaker Chambers.
Always, with Buckley, it comes down to the question of ends. He began his career by assailing the "pragmatism, positivism, and materialism" of the educational establishment. At every turn, he rejected the "epistemological despair" of liberal relativism. "If we cannot hold up the Bill of Rights over against the Communist Manifesto and declare the one a benchmark of civilization, the other of modern atavism," he explained once, "then learning is really of little use." Conservatives, he wrote in 1959, "do not deny the existence of undiscovered truths, but they make a critical assumption, which is that those truths that have already been apprehended are more important to cultivate than those undisclosed ones close to the liberal grasp only in the sense that the fruit was close to Tantalus."
Far from being anti-intellectual, conservatives credit the human mind "with having arrived at certain great conclusions," Buckley notes. But what are these certitudes, these great truths? Buckley invokes them more often than he defines them, perhaps because American conservatives dispute them more than he lets on. Nonetheless, he confirms that "all men are equal and born to be free," a truth traceable to Bethlehem, he says. As Whittaker Chambers (whose profound influence runs throughout these addresses) once put it, "liberal democracy was a political reading of the Bible."
This doesn't mean that America is "the secular reflection of the Incarnation," Buckley cautions. Such a "frenzy of moral vanity" would bedevil the spirit of the French Revolution, not the American, because the Americans had no illusions about "human frailty." Of course, the awareness of our own imperfection has philosophical consequences. In fact, Buckley describes another path up to truth that doesn't depend on scripture or special revelation, a path leading through reflection and self-knowledge. In "Who Cares If Homer Nodded?" a commencement address at St. John's College, Annapolis, he ruminates on the connections between our "individual fallibility" and the need for limited government, on the one hand, and our "hunger after infallibility, which surely gives rise to the religious instinct," on the other.
Still, by calling the Declaration of Independence "the lodestar of constitutional assumptions" and by identifying "our governing assumption" as the fact "that human beings are equal," Buckley parts company with the dogmas of his old teacher, Willmoore Kendall, who had tried to wring all talk of individual human equality out of the American political tradition. By tracing equality and liberty to the Bible -- to the "Creator" who endowed all men with "natural rights" -- Buckley dignifies American democracy while at the same time harnessing it, in principle, to permanent limits and purposes.
Although he grew up on Nock's talk of "the Remnant," the scattered few who could keep the possibility of civilization alive during dark times, Buckley never felt that conservatism was fated to remain a Remnant. As a young man he broached the idea of publishing National Review to Whittaker Chambers, who responded, "with the dark historicism for which he had become renowned: 'Don't you see?' he said. 'The West is doomed, so that any effort to save it is correspondingly doomed.'"
Buckley replied that even if it were doomed, the republic deserved a journal that would argue why "we ought to have survived." By the late 1960s, the republic's survival seemed threatened as much by internal disorder as by external compulsion. In the face of urban and campus riots and the New Left's nihilistic challenge, Buckley announced that conservatives needed to make "gut affirmations respecting America's way of doing things." We live "in an age when what matters most is the survival of basic distinctions," he explained in 1984. Blackford Oakes, the hero of Buckley's spy novels, understands this -- incarnates it, in fact. Blackford's "basic assumption," his creator revealed that year,
is that the survival of everything we cherish depends on the survival of the culture of liberty; and that this hangs on our willingness to defend this extraordinary country of ours, so awfully mixed up, so much of the time; so schizophrenic in its understanding of itself and its purposes; so crazily indulgent of its legion of wildly ungovernable miscreants -- to defend it at all costs. With it all, this idealistic republic is the finest bloom of nationhood in all recorded time, and save only that God may decide that the land of the free and the home of the brave has outrun its license on history, we Americans must contend, struggle, and if necessary fight for America's survival.
This fight Bill Buckley has waged, and waged magnificently, for the better part of a century.
Charles R. Kesler is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.