November 24, Thanksgiving this year, was Bill Buckley’s birthday. Born in 1925, he would have turned 86 that day. It doesn’t seem possible that he died at the end of February 2008, nearly four years ago. Where have those months gone? It’s as if the company that delivers time blundered, supplying only half the expected number of hours, days, and months these last several years. Yet another illustration, I suppose, of the mysterious fact that life seems to speed up as you get older.
I often think about, and even more often miss, Bill Buckley. He and his wife Pat were dear friends of ours, and propinquity, the fact that we lived quite close to each other, helped cement the bond. It was rare, in the last few years of his life, that we didn’t see him at least once a week and we “spoke” by email (Bill loved email) much oftener. A veteran observer of world affairs, Bill was ostentatiously well-informed about the controversies of the day. I never thought I had pondered a contentious issue thoroughly until I had discussed it with him.
Bill died before the burlesque that is Barack Hussein Obama really got going. As I recall, he wrote about Obama only once, early in 2008, just a few weeks before he died. Linda Bridges, Bill’s long-time assistant, and I include the column in our recent anthology of Bill’s political and polemical writings, Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr Omnibus. There was little Bill didn’t know about the folly of government intervention, and his connoisseur’s nose for socialist encroachment masquerading as community-based altruism instantly revealed Obama as the redistributionist that he has turned out to be. Thus Bill described as “mischievous” candidate Obama’s suggestion that increased government intervention in our lives would increase the chance that “every American child” would benefit from the riches produced by the mighty engine of American capitalism. It was, Bill observed, a mendacious suggestion, a false promise that would “foster frustration and stimulate disillusion.
“Fostering frustration and stimulating disillusion”: that’s a pretty accurate summary of Obama’s net effect on the body politic of this great county. The title “Athwart History,” as many readers will doubtless already know, comes from the famous publisher’s statement introducing the inaugural issue of National Review, on November 19, 1955. “National Review is out of place,” that bulletin declared, “in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.”
This brash new magazine had arrived with its brash young editor to cast a cold, skeptical, and inquisitive light upon that presumption. The magazine “stands athwart history,” Bill announced, “yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Bill wrote that nearly sixty years ago. But how relevant it seems to the realities we face now, today, circa 2011. “Radical social experimentation”; “the inroads that relativism has made on the American soul”; “the intransigence of the Liberals, who run this country.” Those are a few of Bill’s concerns in that statement. If those yelling Stop! in 1955 were “out of place,” how much more out of place now, in 2011, when what Bill called “the relationship of the state to the individual” in the United States is poised to undergo its most thoroughgoing transformation in history?
The “most thoroughgoing transformation in history”? Is that hyperbolic? Ponder these phrases: “stimulus package,” “cap and trade,” “spread the wealth around,” “nationalized health care.” Just before the 2008 election, Barack Hussein Obama declared to his acolytes that he was only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” If you didn’t believe him then—if you thought that talk of “fundamentally transforming” the country was mere hustings hyperbole—perhaps the three years will have convinced you otherwise.
Ideas, Bill observed in that editorial, “rule the world.” What ideas? Liberty for one. The United States was “conceived in liberty,” as Lincoln put it. The idea of individual freedom was the country’s cynosure, its guiding principle. By 1955, that principle had been insidiously undermined by the well-intentioned dispensations of “literate America,” intoxicated as it was by “radical social experimentation.” Think of it: In 1955, Bill Buckley, not yet thirty, argued that “There never was an age of conformity quite like this one.” And today? Looking back, we understand that the dampening spirit of conformity and the assault on freedom were then in their infancy. They have suddenly come of age. The question is not whether Bill’s inaugural bulletin is still pertinent. It could hardly be more so. The question is whether those “uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom” will command the wit, rhetoric, and moral courage to stand athwart tomorrow whispering, confiding, explaining—sometimes even yelling—Stop!—in order that freedom might have an opportunity to prevail.
The earliest piece in Athwart History dates from the summer of 1951. In it, Bill, invoking Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (then only seven years old), limned two critical dangers facing American liberty: the external threat of Communist imperialism and the homegrown threat of “government paternalism.” The fall of the Soviet colossus signaled not the end but the metamorphosis of the former threat, its distribution over a more amorphous field of action. ObamaCare, the regulatory juggernaut of the EPA, the end of the incandescent lightbulb, SuperNanny politicians like Michael Bloomberg: the threat of government paternalism is today more patent than ever. What’s odd is how many of these evils have long pedigrees that Bill wrote about decades ago. Many of the essays in Athwart History date from the Fifties or Sixties or Seventies. How often though his words seem minted yesterday or possibly this morning.
Look at the topics: Environmentalism. The oil crisis. The Religious Right. States’ rights. Reforming health care. Immigration, illegal and the other kind. The future of Social Security. Israel. Irresponsible accusations of racism. The Supreme Court. Iran and the bomb. There is even a piece from 1970 called “Why We Need a Black President in 1980.” Again and again you’ll find that the substance as well as the subject of these pieces could have been taken from what is happening now, today.
In part, no doubt, the contemporaneous feel of so much that Bill wrote is explained by a passage from Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” In essentials, we human beings aren’t much different now from what we were in 1950 or in 1960, so it is not surprising that the problems we face are, in essentials, the same. But the uncanny contemporary feel of so much Bill wrote half a century ago has a root in something else, too. Among Bill’s gifts as a writer was an unerring instinct for the pertinent. When he wrote about a matter of public interest, he went for, and generally hit upon, the jugular.
I do not mean only that he deployed the successful debater’s trick of touching on spots that were sore or weak. Bill was an able debater, true enough, and he was plenty adept at ferreting out and exposing his opponents’ weaknesses, evasions, ambiguities, enthymemes, and unwarranted presumptions. But he also had a conspicuous talent for getting to the heart of a matter. And so whether his subject was environmentalism, school choice, race relations, religious observances, foreign policy, or encroaching statism, what he wrote was likely to touch upon what was central and enduring. That is one of the benefits of conservatism: embracing the permanent, one may be unfashionable, but one is never out of date. Literature, said Ezra Pound, is news that stays news. I have met few people better informed about public affairs than Bill Buckley. But his mastery of the day’s ephemera was only a prelude to his embrace of the principles that underlay the controversies. Consider this observation from 1959: “A great nation,” Bill wrote, “can indulge its little extravagances; but a long enough series of little extravagances can add up to a stagnating if not a crippling economic overhead.” I wish Bill had been around to see the bumper sticker that reads: “It’s a good thing Obama doesn’t know what comes after ‘trillion.’” He would have liked that.
He certainly would not have liked the very big extravagances being indulged by our masters in Washington today. Would that he were with us to observe, comment upon, and excoriate them.
“What,” Bill asked fifty yeas ago, “is the indicated course of action?” His answer is as vital today as in 1960. It wasn’t a program, exactly. Call it, Bill said, “a No-Program, if you will.” It revolved around the effort to “to maintain and wherever possible enhance the freedom of the individual to acquire property and dispose of that property in ways that he decides on” and to deal with problems like unemployment “locally, placing the political and humanitarian responsibility on the lowest feasible political unit.”
“I will not,” Bill wrote,
cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.
To which I will only add, Amen.