28 February 2008

William F. Buckley

I'm tardy in posting my remembrance of Buckley because I was watching a movie last night. History will remember him for shaping modern American conservatism, and for seeing it evolve beyond his control. One of his major achievements was to enforce a distinction between a mainstream anti-communist movement and the John Birch Society and other extreme conspiracy theorists. In other words, he made conservatism respectable at a low point in its history. Whether this was a good thing remains debatable. We could argue that nutjobs like the Birchers, who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist stooge, represent a reductio ad absurdam of conservatism that reveals its pure paranoid essence. Whatever we argue, Buckley was a philosophical conservative, more concerned with limits than with "freedom" as an end in itself. Late in life, he expressed reservations about the neocon agenda, at least as it was being executed in Iraq. He was different in kind from the talkers who've inherited the movement -- though perhaps not entirely. There's this tidbit, after all, from the ABC coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention. To set it up, Buckley and Gore Vidal were commenting on the anti-war demonstrations in Chicago, including one group that had raised a North Vietnamese flag. Buckley equated doing so with waving a Nazi flag during World War II.

In Buckley's defense, Vidal had a way of bringing this out in people. Norman Mailer head-butted Vidal once backstage on the Dick Cavett show, on a program where Vidal accused Mailer of being a precursor of Charles Manson. Mailer and Buckley had their debates as well, but were reportedly more civil with one another. Now they belong to the ages.

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