William F. Buckley Jr

It is not possible to write about Bill Buckley without referring to his extraordinary personality, to his loyalty and generosity, to his intellectual courage and cultivation, to his artistic talent and sensibility and to the genius of his human contacts. This is best done not as a scholarly disquisition or a predictable professional accolade, but by drawing from the eloquent domesticity of elective affinities and encounters over almost half a century. The ancients understood this well when they indicated that human conduct is the one language that rarely lies.

We first met in January 1972 on the slopes of the San Cristobal hill, overlooking Santiago. Bill Buckley and Alistair Horne were in Chile to take the pulse of the country under the Allende Marxist regime. It was prudence, not mountaineering, that took us there—we drove—because this hill was one place where we had a sporting chance of not being seen or overheard by the ubiquitous Cuban-led political police.

The Institute of International Studies of the University of Chile, which I directed, had just been violently occupied by a mob of revolutionary zealots waving red flags and vowing to transform it into a “front-line trench in the struggle against imperialism”. Much else of the same Zimbabwean ilk was occurring elsewhere in factories and farms illegally expropriated while the police looked on, prevented from interfering by the conniving regime. This was for all to see, but it was either ignored or distorted by the swarms of well-primed journalists living it up as in Scoop, while otherwise engaged in reporting the dawn of the immaculate new era of democratic socialism.

It was Bill Buckley’s devastating and thoughtful discernment that saw through the fog of neo-Marxist rhetoric and pointed out, I believe for the first time, that what was happening suggested instead that the country was being steadily pushed through well-orchestrated stages of revolutionary chaos. The story was told in Alistair Horne’s Small Earthquake in Chile which appeared a few months later, in 1972.

Soon following his visit to Chile, Bill sent me a copy of his Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers: Letters to William F. Buckley Jr, 1954–1961, a book published in 1969, at a time when it took exceptional courage visibly to dissent from the politically correct view that Alger Hiss was an innocent victim and Whittaker Chambers beyond contempt. Bill’s resolute defence of Chambers, who in the 1950s worked as senior editor of the National Review, is supported convincingly by the quality and humanity of the letters, some of which merit inclusion in an anthology of the most moving relics of an enduring and noble friendship.

Bill wept when he received the news of the heart attack that killed Chambers. Earlier, Chambers had observed that although American opinion holds that weeping in men is unmanly, he had found most men in whom there was:

“depth of experience, or capacity for compassion, singularly apt to tears. How can it be otherwise? One looks and sees: and it would be a kind of impotence to be incapable of, or to grudge, the comment of tears, even while you struggle against it … I cannot listen for any length of time to the speaking voice of Kirsten Flagstad, for example, without being done in by that magnificence of tone that seems to speak from the center of sorrow, even from the center of the earth.”

And Bill adds, “For me, and others who knew him, his voice had been and still is like Kirsten Flagstad’s, magnificent in tone, speaking to our time from the center of sorrow, from the center of the earth.”

Soon afterwards, a trip to New York showed more of Bill’s multifaceted brilliance when dinner at his Augustan Manhattan mansion was effortlessly enhanced by cultivated and witty conversation and his truly admirable skill at the harpsichord. As it was said of someone possibly less deserving, to know him was a liberal education, and more; he was a Renaissance man and an exemplary reminder of the beauty that intellectual elegance and artistic prowess can achieve when journeying hand in hand with moral authority.

Having lived in Mexico and mastered the Spanish language, Bill was familiar with the poetry of César Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, and on his next visit to Chile expressed an interest in calling on Neruda at his home in Isla Negra. This was some years after the Hiss case had divided writers, artists and academics into warring camps, with Neruda very much in one and Buckley in the other. Bill’s political position could not have been clearer, but he never allowed it to disturb his appreciation of good art in general or good poetry in particular. Alas, Neruda was then under considerable pressure from the Communist Party not to stray from the straight and narrow and was prevailed upon very publicly to refuse to meet a man with whom without doubt he would have enjoyed a leisurely conversation about Spanish poetry.

Then came the birthday of my son, then an architect living in Manhattan, and our plans to drive to New York from our base at Harvard for the celebration to which, of course, Bill was invited. The problem was that his schedule was so crowded that he could not be downtown with us at the appointed time, and his characteristically generous solution was to invite the whole birthday party to move to his seaside home at Stamford. Pat produced a splendid feast, including presents and funny hats, and Bill met my son, discovered that they shared a passionate addiction to sailing, and for the next quarter of a century Koko retained a permanent and honourable place in his crew. Which episode is important because if, as some of my foreign friends tell me, the jury is still out on the metempsychosis lark, my only hope of making it as an architect and sailor was vicariously achieved through my son’s lending a hand as a member of Bill’s Patito crew.

And then, of course, there was his 1989 visit to Melbourne and the interview for the television program Firing Line he recorded with Mr Phillip Adams and myself. This owed a sliver of motivation to an article I wrote for Quadrant a few years earlier, in 1983, entitled “A World Made in England”, which Bill and I had discussed a couple of times. Was Australia going native? Was this great English-speaking nation responding so sympathetically to her geographical position that the links with Britain would soon vanish? What was the future of Australian national identity? I thought that much the same questions could have been asked of Lusitanian or Daco-Roman intellectuals in the first century AD who would perhaps have responded that Roman influence was already weakening and soon would disappear altogether from what we now know as Portugal and Rumania. At any rate, we had our chat and Mr Adams, like those ancient Lusitanians, was delighted to confirm the comatose condition of the English contribution to Australian culture. Later Bill thought that Mr Adams was afflicted by a particularly virulent form of parochialism. Was this, he wondered, Mr Adams’s over-enthusiastic attempt to overcome the proverbial Aussie “cringe”?

A couple of years later, returning to my job with Boston University, I was rather unceremoniously detained at JFK Airport and informed that, short of angels descending from on high, I would be bundled into the next aeroplane bound for the land of Oz. Although I never discovered the reason for my detention, I expect it was not unrelated to my work thirty-five years earlier, in Spain, with the International Brigade Association, or perhaps my friendship with Pablo Neruda on my visits to Cuba and the USSR at a time when such places were decidedly out of bounds.

Things looked very grim, but I managed to get a telephone call out to Bill, who found out where we were and instructed us not to make a dash for freedom, but to give him a chance to put things right. About thirty minutes later and among smiles and explanations we were ushered into the United States of America courtesy of Bill and John H. Sununu, at the time White House Chief of Staff for President George H.W. Bush, to whose good-humoured and swift response I remain profoundly indebted. A call came soon afterwards from the National Review’s magnificent Miss Bronson summoning us to luncheon at Nicola Paone’s restaurant, Bill’s favourite, to celebrate my release from captivity.

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about Bill’s decisive influence in resurrecting conservatism in the United States through the National Review and his other journalistic activities, including his justly renowned television program and public lectures. The temptation is to agree, applaud and move on, overlooking the sobering fact that even the best and most timely, incisive and illuminating journalism risks ending, as more than one Fleet Street cynic has observed, wrapping fish before the day is out. It is important therefore to reiterate that Bill Buckley had more to contribute than brilliant journalistic insights and much more than a modicum of moral and intellectual encouragement to a political position.

Bill’s exceptionally dynamic and libertarian conservatism may have derived nourishment from unheralded sources that merit attention. For example, it is not possible to dismiss as unimportant the substantial agreement between him and T. S. Eliot that there is no culture without religion, a proposal consistent with his stern Catholic piety and his dismissive though amiable views on Anglicanism.

At the risk of rupturing the envelope, I would further conjecture that there is a suggestion of a linkage, tenuous perhaps but sympathetic, between his conservative thought and the views, say, of Cardinal Newman both before and after the Tractarians, when the complex interaction of necessary continuity and inevitable change must have left the door open to revisit the founding fathers of modern conservatism who believed that human rights were less important than human responsibilities, and that the “happy effect of following nature” indicated that the liberties and wellbeing of a society did not constitute general a priori rights, but rather a particular inheritance received from ancestors who had to struggle and even fight to protect and enhance it for eventual transmission to posterity.

Few activities establish a more intimate relationship between man and nature than sailing the high seas. Few contemporaries have been more happily and efficiently attuned to the rhythms, harmonies and dissonance of nature and the language of the sea than Bill Buckley, and few would have understood better what Edmund Burke had in mind when, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, he explained that:

“working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of Providence, are handed down, to us and from us, in the same course and order. [This] political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein … the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression … thus in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.”

Such an understanding furnishes “a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission: without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires.”

Of course, Bill Buckley could have penned this if Edmund Burke had not done it before him. William F. Buckley Jr was a Burke for our times.

Claudio Veliz is Emeritus University Professor and Emeritus Professor of History at Boston University, and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University. He now lives on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.

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