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William F. Buckley Jr.

Lurking in the many tributes to William F. Buckley Jr. is a nostalgia for a time when political discourse was a merry affair, when rhetorical triumph came from intellectual rigor and wit and not from volume and hostility. Buckley was a man of tremendous brio and dash, by comparison with whom today's reigning television pundits seem like nothing more than a scrum of bullies.

That said, it probably wasn't pleasant to be sliced and diced by the man on "Firing Line." The very name of the show hinted that it was not a hand-holding session. Perhaps the right analogy for the Buckley style is verbal fencing. How quaint compared to today's howitzer approach. Someone like Bill O'Reilly would take a bazooka to a mosquito. Buckley was a fine Bordeaux, while someone like Michael Savage is one of the less heralded vintages of Sterno. [I think that fills our metaphor quota for the day.]

The Wall Street Journal, which knows a thing or two about conservatives, gently mourned the absence of any true heir to Buckley (retyped from hard copy -- I buy it whenever I fly -- but will search for a link):

"WFB found joy in everything, even in politics. 'I have always held in high esteen the genial tradition,' he wrote. This approach is now faded, and more in need in public life than ever. Several generations of conservatives grew up (in more than one sense) with Bill Buckley. Now they have - well, there is no one like him."

[How did they resist the urge to describe him as sui generis?]

You might not have agreed with him, or forgiven him, even, for judgments that in retrospect cannot be dismissed merely as rounding errors, but you probably would have enjoyed having dinner with him, or going for a sail, or just listening to him talk.

It may be a stretch to find a connection between Buckley's career and the rise of Barack Obama, but what the heck, we're just blogging. Von Drehle links the two in his fine tribute at Obama argues that people can disagree without being disagreeable, and Buckley certainly showed that to be true. His charm and civility are all the more vivid now that we've become a country in which every night there's a televised slugfest between some version of Ann Coulter and Michael Moore. Obama's success is due to his recurring promise of a new kind of politics. Vague though that may be, it's a message embraced by voters who view our political life as dysfunctional and fundamentally repulsive.

The eulogists rightly celebrate Buckley as the founder of a magazine and a long-running TV show, and as the key figure in making conservatism an ideology of ideas rather than ossified grudges and hatreds, but I think of him as one of the founders of modern multi-tasking. He could type up a nationally syndicated column in 20 minutes in the back of a limo on the way to a speech.

The Times obit on Buckley, a fine piece of writing, sampled the superior Style profile by David Remnick that ran in 1985 (when Remnick was still wet behind the ears as a Post reporter). Remnick discovered that Buckley's protean intellect did not emerge by accident:

'The 10 Buckley children were tutored, according to a privately published family history, "with the quite simple objective that they become absolutely perfect." They were given professional instruction in: "apologetics, art, ballroom dancing, banjo, bird-watching, building boats in bottles, calligraphy, canoeing, carpentry, cooking, driving trotting horses, French, folk-dancing, golf, guitar (Hawaiian and Spanish), harmony, herb-gardening, horsemanship, history of architecture, ice-skating, mandolin, marimba, music appreciation, organ, painting, piano, playing popular music, rumba, sailing, skiing, Spanish, speech, stenography, swimming, tap-dancing, tennis, typing and wood-carving." '

Buckley's memoir, "Overdrive," published in The New Yorker, described a ludicrously overscheduled existence as magazine editor, columnist, TV host, speechmaker, sailor, raconteur, and bon vivant. There is a signature moment in which (if I recall correctly) the president of the United States is trying to reach him by phone. Buckley, busy, says he'll have to call him back.

What a life!


Some Buckley links:

More from the Remnick profile:

' He has worn his gestures like a cassock and mitre, William F. Buckley Jr. has: the haute Tory leaning back in his chair at preternatural angles, his anteater tongue darting from his mouth as if for gnats, his mind clicking and whirring in wicked ratiocination . . . and his voice -- a honking concoction of dislocation and breeding -- whinnying and hooting after the Flaubertian mot juste . . . zeugma . . . sesquipedalian, perhaps . . . and then . . . gasp! . . . pari passu . . . some doughy liberal foe is pierced through his bleeding heart and pronounced DOA by the culture police.

'Time and again Buckley's teeth, as sharp and brilliant as a switchblade, form the grin of rebel victory. The polemical arena is littered with his victims. He reduced one guest on "Firing Line," novelist Nelson Algren, to hysterical singing. Some knew that in absence there is wisdom. Robert F. Kennedy, for one, declined a debate on the show, to which Buckley remarked as how the baloney was rejecting the grinder.

'Boola Boola Bill. As he aged, he changed hardly at all. He has the eyes of a child who has just discovered a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat. Boating, weekly workouts with a New York cop and a frenetic work schedule have kept him spry and somewhat trim. He dresses with the custom-frayed collars, the brown-socks-and-black-shoes e'lan of the Happy Yalie. Even in late middle age he appears in short pants more often than Little Lord Fauntleroy. In books and glossy magazines he is often seen wearing bermudas whilst floating across lily ponds aboard a motorized punt.'

Here's Von Drehle's tribute at Time:

' I really believed I had the famous debater in a corner when I pointed out that giant corporations like Chrysler shouldn't denounce big government and then expect a bailout when they mismanage themselves into bankruptcy. Buckley gave me his familiar hop of the eyebrows and quick intake of breath, flashed the signature eye-twinkle and answered, "I think if Lee Iacocca were here with us, he would answer" -- pause, grin -- "[bleep] you." '

Lots more links on Buckley at Arts & Letters Daily.

Here's Henry Allen:

'Buckley was a man of wild energy, a man who claimed to write his syndicated column in 20 minutes, a feat possible because he was, in the words of a former employee, "the fastest typist I ever saw." He wrote 5,600 of those columns, by one account. He wrote more than 50 books, including 10 spy novels and journals of his sails across the Atlantic, along with a children's book he claimed to have written in 45 minutes. He gave 70 speeches a year. He ran for mayor of New York. With his wife, Pat, he conducted a blue-chip social life. His television show, "Firing Line," ran for 33 years. He played the harpsichord.'

Andrew Golis at tpmcafe has video clips of Buckley. (Lots of interesting debate in his comment thread.)

Check out James Wolcott and Rick Perlstein.

And finally, here's Buckley being Buckley as he appreciates another American original, William Shawn.

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 29, 2008; 9:52 AM ET
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