In the Crimson, David L. Golding argues that Bill Buckley was “one of the last truly charismatic public intellectuals”…
…and in this sense his passing should be lamented by anyone nostalgic for those days when ideas and the âlife-of-the-mindâ still mattered.
Oh, I don’t know about that.
For a couple of reasons. While Buckley certainly gets credit for resuscitating American conservatism, can we think of any particular idea that is associated with him? A single book, other than God and Man at Yale?
And if, truly, one goes back and picks that book up, its immaturity is striking, and it is difficult to imagine that such a poorly edited book could have acquired such a reputation. (One suspects that its reputation depends upon the many, many more people who have read about it than have actually read it.)
Buckley wrote dozens of books after GAMAY. Without checking Wikipedia, can you name one?
In fact, when you get right down to it, would one really even call Buckley an intellectual?
A wordsmith, certainly. A provocateur. A partisan.
But isn’t it lowering the bar to call him an intellectual?
Intellectual life these days, Golding says, has been degraded “by such loutish mediocrities as Christopher Hitchens and Ann Coulter,” which strikes me as unfair to Hitchens, who, whatever one may think of him, operates on a significantly higher level of thought and rhetoric than does Coulter.
But as Golding acknowledges, Buckley himself wasn’t immune to loutish behavior, as in this remark to Gore Vidal (who is, in fact, far more of an intellectual than Buckley).
He famously lost his temper on national television and blustered, in his droll blue-blood Connecticut brogue, âNow listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or Iâll sock you in your goddamn face and youâll stay plastered.â
This from the man who would subsequently suggest that gays be tattoed to stop the spread of AIDS….
For many people, Buckley had a seductive WASP persona (despite the fact of his Catholicism). He had family money! He sailed! He’d been in the CIA! He had lockjaw!
Harvardian conservative Ross Douthat was seducedânot literally, I hasten to addâafter skinny-dipping with Buckley off the side of his yacht.
As Douthat points out today, Buckley loved that boat.
Sailing, he wrote, can have so many rapturous moments.
In fact, if Buckley had been a liberal, conservatives would have ridiculed him for exactly these rich-boy sentimentalities, and they wouldn’t have been entirely wrong in doing so.
Imagine if John Kerry waxed so rhapsodically about yachting…..
The truth is that Buckley was someone who was born into privilege and seems to have impressed people simply by how comfortably he settled into that life. The sight of a man so utterly at home in his own identity is powerful, especially to young people seeking to find an identity of their own. Nothing seduces the young like self-confidence.
But as someone who knows some small part of that worldâlike BB, my father attended Millbrook School, and he was roommates with Reid Buckley, Bill’s brother, at Yale; it’s also fair to say that I had, in some measure, a WASPy upbringingâI have a somewhat different, if less romantic take.
I’m more impressed by WASPs who challenged their culture, their background, who reached out to those less fortunate than they.
(For a fascinating consideration of an intellectual who has struggled with the idea of WASP culture throughout his entire life, take a look at Larissa MacFarqhar’s profile of Louis Auchincloss in last week’s New Yorker.)
There are lots of erudite, learned WASPY types; my father and his Yale friends weren’t as prolific or accomplished as Buckley, and certainly not as self-promoting, but stylistically they were similar enough. It was a generational thingâYale men in the post-war era.
And there are lots of WASPs, from FDR to John Kerry, whose definition of helping others went beyond inviting people to join them on their sailboats.
Perhaps I am missing something, but such efforts do not leap out from the narratives of William F. Buckley’s life that we are now reading…..