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The Power of Words

Matt Schudel

I spent much of the day editing and updating our obituary of William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual father of the modern conservative movement who died at his desk yesterday at age 82. The original story was written a few years ago by retired Post obituarist Bart Barnes, who graduated from Yale not too long after Buckley himself.

Buckley's son, Christopher, called me about 6 p.m. Wednesday to talk about his father, who died on the 16th birthday of his grandson and namesake. Chris said he was going to make his son's favorite meal, spaghetti carbonara, for dinner because it was important to keep busy -- and because his father would have wanted it that way.

"One things he always told me," Chris said, "is that industry is the enemy of melancholy."

He also mentioned that his father has three new books coming out this year: "He writes more books dead than I do alive."

Say what you will about Bill Buckley, there is no denying that he had an amazing facility for language -- which goes a long way toward explaining both the enduring force of his political message and his popularity as a public figure. His long-running PBS show, Firing Line, was on the air for 33 years. It was mostly about politics -- and sometimes about music, fiction and other unexpected topics -- but the droll, debonair Mr. Buckley was always the star of the show. There was something witty and compelling about his larger-than-life vocabulary and his cultivated patrician accent, which seemed to be perched on the spires of Oxford, calling wistfully toward the New World. (A good example of his Firing Line style can be seen on this clip -- an interview with political scientist Kenneth Minogue in 1985 -- on YouTube.

Even if you don't care much for politics of Buckley's conservative hue, he was a fascinating character. He was always an entertaining and provocative guest on other talk shows, back when talk shows actually had people on who knew how to talk. Buckley may have been, as Arthur M. Schlesinger put it, "the scourge of American liberalism" -- a title Buckley loved, by the way -- but he was one of the last great knights of the lexicon, whose eloquence ignited a movement that has come to dominate American politics over the past 30 years. Who says words don't matter?

By Matt Schudel  |  February 27, 2008; 10:47 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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