William F. Buckley Jr. died 8 months ago, at the end of February, 2008. Today, November 24, is his birthday. He would have been 83.
To think about Bill Buckley’s achievements is to confront a paralyzing cataract of possibilities. He did, he wrote, he instigated so much. Where does one begin? (Or, perhaps more to the point, how does one end?) It would be interesting indeed to have the benefit of his counsel at this piquant moment in the history of the American republic. What would he have had to say about our current economic adventures? About Barack Obama? About The Surge in Iraq? The saber rattling from Russia? The prospect of the US Government “bailing out” Citigroup, GM, Ford, AIG, Goldman Sachs, the lady with a mortgage and a gas tank to fill?
I have my guesses, but like everyone else, I do not know. Part of what made Bill Buckley such a tonic companion was his–I was going to say his “unpredictability,” but that is not right. Neither you nor I might be able to predict his position on subject X, but that was not because he was capricious but because our powers of prediction–which is to say, our powers of insight and habits of consistency–were lacking.
Bill was a thoughtful but also very amusing man. He tells the story Frank Meyer, his friend and National Review colleague whose exceptionally robust small-government conservatism led him to repudiate Abraham Lincoln for illegitimately expanding the federal government’s powers. When Meyer lay dying of lung cancer in the early 1970s, he considered exchanging his libertarianism for Catholicism. Bill was often with him during those final weeks. Meyer did finally convert, but only, Bill reports, after overcoming the ultimate intellectual obstacle: the “collectivist implications” he saw lurking in the formulation “the Communion of Saints” in the Apostle’s Creed. Talk about staunch anti-Communism!
Bill’s anniversary brings back many memories and reminds me of many things he wrote and said. Two specimens: God and Man at Yale was Bill’s intellectual and political debut. First published in 1951, it threw down a gauntlet whose relevance, and whose power to provoke, is far from exhausted. I won’t rehearse the argument of the book, but only note Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a 1925 Supreme Court case that Bill cites in the course of his discussion of academic freedom. In that case, the Court unanimously ruled that the state had the power to require that “teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition,” that “certain studies plainly essential to good citizen be taught,” and that “nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.” (The Court also held that a state did not have the power to “standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.”) Shouldn’t we, I wonder, be making better use of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, both in what we require of our teachers and in the limitations we place on the state’s interference with the “high duty” parents and guardians in nurturing and directing the destiny of their charges?
In 1965, Bill ran for mayor of New York, the candidate for the Conservative Party against Abe Beame (the Democrat) and John Lindsay (the Republican). Asked what he would if he won, Bill famously quipped “Demand a recount.” But winning was never in the cards. Making a point, and clearing a public space for conservative opinions, was. Bill did those things. In a meditation on the campaign, he also offered a useful observation on the limited political efficacy of winning arguments.
A good debater is not necessarily an effective vote-getter: you can find a hole in your opponent’s argument through which you could drive a coach and four ringing jingle bells all the way, and thrill at the crystallization of a truth wrung out from a bloody dialogue–which, however, may warm only you and your muse, while the smiling parologist has in the meantime made votes by the tens of thousands.
The election of Barack Obama has precipitated a veritable cottage industry devoted to the question “Wither conservatism?” (In fact, it is a question that should have been precipitated by the nomination of John McCain as the Republican candidate.) We’ll continue to hear a lot about that subject in the coming months, and a good thing, too. Arguments need to be made. Positions formulated. Leaders encouraged. But Bill’s reflections on the difference between winning the debate and winning the election are worth keeping in mind. Intellectual principles are important. So is logical tidiness. But in the political realm, both depend upon another art–the art of rhetoric. By “rhetoric” I do not mean simple eloquence but rather what Aristotle meant when he defined rhetoric as “the art of persuasion,” which deploys logic and arguments in order to win the hearts and minds of its auditors.
This was something that Bill Buckley not only understood but exemplified in his life and through the many institutions he vivified with his intelligence, humor, and what the Greeks called thumos. It’s one of many reasons we have to celebrate his life on this, Bill Buckley’s 83rd anniversary.