Bill Buckley announced recently that he is giving up public speaking, but he has softened the blow by publishing, for the first time, a collection of his best speeches, gleaned from a half century's worth of lectures, debates, testimonials, and eulogies.
There can hardly be a conservative alive who hasn't at some point heard Buckley speak in person or on television, and who hasn't cheered and playfully imitated Buckley's distinctive, ah, cadences. For decades, he crisscrossed the land, speaking seventy or more times a year on behalf of conservatism, while in his spare time hammering out a thrice-weekly column, hosting the weekly television series Firing Line, editing National Review, and writing about a book a year, many of them best-sellers. He is the most indefatigable and probably the most famous American lecturer since Mark Twain.
His achievement is all the more stunning because this is not an age friendly to forensic excellence. Wagner's music, Twain quipped, is better than it sounds. Most modern speeches are the opposite. They are much worse than they sound. President Clinton's speeches, for example, are almost unreadable, despite their political effectiveness, as delivered.
Buckley's speeches, compiled and edited with the assistance of Linda Bridges, NR's former managing editor, and prefaced with new short commentaries by Buckley, are superbly readable. Full of argument, wit, and occasionally drama, they provide lessons aplenty for aspiring orators and speechwriters who want to escape the crude behavioralism of modern rhetoric (stimulus, response) for a more humane and rational art. Although these are not political speeches in the narrow sense (and many of the most charming are not about politics at all), they provide a trenchant history of American politics, the Cold War, and the conservative movement over the last half of the 20th century.
Readers of Buckley's spy novels and newspaper columns have come to expect this kind of moral commentary, and they will not be disappointed. What is surprising, however, is how personally revealing these speeches are. Framed by their latter-day introductions, they are scenes from the autobiography that Buckley has never written. Though he has afforded us, before, several book-length glimpses of a week in his busy life, he has never before shown us that life in long profile. David Brooks, in his perceptive foreword to the volume, argues that "for all Buckley's contributions to conservative ideas, his most striking contribution is to the conservative personality. He made being conservative attractive and even glamorous." But this book exhibits, too, Buckley's lifelong love for ideas; it shows how, to a remarkable degree, he devoted his personality to the service of his principles.
As a boy, Buckley imbibed deeply from the aristocratic anti-statism of Albert Jay Nock, the editor and essayist who was a friend of Buckley's father. Nock endorsed H. L. Mencken's view that the state is "the enemy of all well-disposed, decent, and industrious men," though, unlike Mencken, Nock took pains to try to find a respectable American pedigree for this insight in the Founding Father's, particularly Jefferson's, thought. But Nock dissented from Jefferson's confidence in universal public education, and went far beyond Jefferson in his comprehensive disdain for politics, which, agreeing with Carlyle, he dismissed as the preoccupation of the quarter-educated.
Before reporting to college, Buckley spent two years in the army at the end of World War II. Like many veterans, he was more impressed by the absurdities of army life than by its spirited solidarity. When he arrived at Yale in 1946, he was a young man in a hurry, grateful to be dwelling amid a community of scholars and away from "those noisy martinets" at boot camp, yet keenly aware of the fragility of freedom and of the life of reason in a world imperiled first by the Nazis and now the Communists.
At Yale he encountered not only leftist economics and irreligion which he later excoriated in his first book, God and Man at Yale but also Willmoore Kendall, the young political scientist who became his mentor. Kendall was Nock's opposite in almost every respect: he was a kind of democrat, a student of Rousseau and of majoritarianism, who taught that every society is by necessity a closed society, defined by a consensus of opinion on right and wrong, noble and base, us and them. Even the most open society, averred Kendall, is in fact closed, because it has effectively made up its mind that openness is good. If it hasn't, then it won't remain an open society very long.
Every society had an orthodoxy, according to Kendall, and societies could be judged by the quality or soundness of their ruling opinions. The standard by which to rank different societies was not abstract freedom but some civilized combination of virtue, utility, and tradition, concerning which Kendall was a little vague. Nonetheless, he was clear that democratic societies ultimately depended for their survival on virtuous majorities, prepared to defend their way of life. Not every majority in every land was sufficiently competent, of course, which was why democracy was a rare plant. Institutional safeguards, procedural guarantees, and rights talk might palliate but could not cure the problems of democracy. Liberals who believed otherwise were naïve.
When Buckley burst upon the public scene in the early 1950s, he put these theories to work. Inspired by Kendall, influenced further by Ortega y Gasset, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk, Buckley stood foursquare against American liberalism's "mania" for method its belief in progressive education, which emphasized the methods over the contents of learning; liberalism's faith in "the democratic process," easily reducible to majority rule and suitable for quick export; and its infinite enthusiasm for due process of law, regardless of imminent threats to the Republic.
Buckley's criticisms of Yale and his defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy were thus of a piece. In each case, Buckley responded to a threat to American orthodoxy creeping relativism and socialism in the classroom, indifference to Communist infiltration in Washington and Hollywood. But what was most insidious about these threats, in his view, was the disguise of principle that they wore.
The anti-McCarthyites were so obsessed with the Senator's methods that they dismissed the whole danger of Communist influence. They seemed ready to sacrifice the end, the survival of free government, for the means, a fastidious due process; or at best, they thought the end would take care of itself. In any event, the result was effectively to strengthen Communism, Buckley argued, by spawning legions of American anti-anti-Communists. Similarly, on college campuses, professors were so obsessed with what Buckley called "the superstitions of academic freedom" that they forgot that this freedom was properly for the sake of discovering, and teaching, truth. Having dedicated themselves to an elaborate defense of the pursuit of truth, they didn't want to think about their responsibilities when they actually found it. And so academic freedom became an end-in-itself, and truth became optional, maybe nonexistent.
Buckley grappled, even in the 1950s, with the characteristic conservative tensions between individual freedom and social order, and his reasoning as well as his conclusions remain important. In modifying his early anti-statism, he understood himself to be appealing from one part of the American tradition to another. "How might we reconcile the American heritage of opposition to distorted growth in the state," he asked, "with the august, aspirant movement in which the Founding Fathers plighted their trust?" How to combine, in other words, the Founders' distrust of state power with their own exercise of it on behalf of republican, constitutional government?
It was clear to Buckley that Nock's "impulse to categorical renunciation" of politics ran up against America's "sovereign historical responsibility" in the postwar years to defend itself, and freedom, against Communist tyranny. That defense required, among other things, the use of counterintelligence and espionage, which Buckley upheld (he had himself served briefly in the C.I.A.) as a "moral art." He deplored those, such as the ultra-libertarian Murray Rothbard, who were "so much the captive of anti-statist obsession" that they "loudly professed" that they couldn't distinguish "between the leaders of the Soviet Union and the leaders of the United States." To them, Buckley cooled replied: "the man who pushes an old lady into the path of an oncoming truck, and the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of an oncoming truck, are not to be denounced evenhandedly as men who push old ladies around."
Buckley's larger point was that politics itself is a moral art, the prudent use of dangerous powers for the sake of civilized ends, for the sake of the good society. The "proper challenge of conservatives is to tame the state," he advised in 1997, to habituate and limit it to its proper ends, not to abolish it. In effect, he resorted to the Founders' statecraft as a model of the political art, as a whole within which anti-statism would be a part; and only a part.
But he leaves this an implication, and at least in these speeches he has little to say about the political handiwork by which the Founders sought actually to tame the state, namely, the Constitution. Buckley has surprisingly few political heroes. Although he discourses at length in this volume on Winston Churchill, and adverts to Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, and others, he doesn't view politics principally as the cockpit of statesmanship, nor does he feel the need always to run things up the flagpole of the great-souled man. Perhaps his good friend Ronald Reagan comes closest to being Buckley's political hero, but Buckley is in no danger of confusing him with Pericles. As a survivor, and critic, of the 20th century, Buckley remains more impressed by the evil that government can do than by the good. His heroes are the thinkers who make civilization and, incidentally, conservatism possible among his contemporaries, men like James Burnham, Milton Friedman, Whittaker Chambers.
Always, with Buckley, it comes down to the question of ends. He began his career by assailing the "pragmatism, positivism, and materialism" of the educational establishment. At every turn, he rejected the "epistemological despair" of liberal relativism. "If we cannot hold up the Bill of Rights over against the Communist Manifesto and declare the one a benchmark of civilization, the other of modern atavism," he explained once, "then learning is really of little use...." Conservatives, he wrote in 1959, "do not deny the existence of undiscovered truths, but they make a critical assumption, which is that those truths that have already been apprehended are more important to cultivate than those undisclosed ones close to the liberal grasp only in the sense that the fruit was close to Tantalus...."
Far from being anti-intellectual, conservatives credit the human mind "with having arrived at certain great conclusions," Buckley notes. But what are these "certitudes," these "great truths"? Buckley invokes them more often than he defines them, perhaps because American conservatives dispute them more than he lets on. Nonetheless, he confirms that "all men are equal and born to be free," a truth traceable to Bethlehem, he says, to that star "that implanted in each one of us that essence that separates us from the beasts, and tells us that we were made in the image of God and were meant to be free." Chambers, whose profound influence runs throughout these addresses, said in passing, Buckley recalls, "that liberal democracy was a political reading of the Bible."
This doesn't mean that America is "the secular reflection of the Incarnation," he cautions. Such a "frenzy of moral vanity" would bedevil the spirit of the French Revolution, not the American, because the Americans had no illusions about "human frailty." Of course, the awareness of our own imperfection has philosophical consequences. In fact, Buckley describes another path up to truth that doesn't depend on scripture or special revelation, a path leading through reflection and self-knowledge. In "Who Cares If Homer Nodded?" a lovely commencement address at St. John's College, Annapolis, he ruminates on the, connections between our "individual fallibility" and the need for limited government, on the one hand, and our consequent "hunger after infallibility, which surely gives rise to the religious instinct," on the other.
Still, by calling the Declaration of Independence "the lodestar of constitutional assumptions" and by identifying "our governing assumption" as "that human beings are equal," Buckley parts company with the dogmas of his old teacher, Willmoore Kendall, who had tried to wring all talk of individual human equality out of the American political tradition. By tracing equality and liberty to the Bible, i.e., to the "Creator" who endowed all men with "natural rights" (a term he uses, though not often), Buckley dignifies American democracy while at the same time harnessing it, in principle, to permanent limits and purposes.
Although Buckley had grown up on Nock's talk of "the Remnant," the scattered few who could keep the possibility of civilization alive during dark times, Buckley never felt that conservatism was fated to remain a Remnant. As a young man he had broached the idea of National Review to Whittaker Chambers, who responded, "with the dark historicism for which he had become renowned: 'Don't you see?' he said. ' The West is doomed, so that any effort to save it is correspondingly doomed.'"
Buckley replied that even if it were doomed, the Republic deserved a journal that would argue why "we ought to have survived." By the late 1960s, the Republic's survival seemed threatened as much by internal disorder as by external compulsion. In the face of urban and campus riots and the New Left's nihilistic challenge, Buckley announced that conservatives needed to make "gut affirmations respecting America's way of doing things."
National Review led the way, with Buckley calling for conservatives to look anew and more favorably at, among other things, "the democratic process." Liberals had touted democracy as a cure-all for the world's ills. It wasn't, but when combined with the rule of law it was a hell of a lot better than most other systems; and at its best, democracy preserved both freedom and virtue. Besides, in domestic politics it was increasingly the unelected parts of government, especially the federal courts, that were creating racial quotas, legalizing abortion, and otherwise wreaking havoc on traditional American culture. Gradually, Buckley moderated the aristocratic tone and tendencies of conservatism, mounting a general defense of the goodness of American society against its utopian despisers. Thus he did his part to open the doors through which neoconservatives and ethnic Democrats would enter the conservative movement, swelling it to majority or near-majority status, electing Ronald Reagan.
We live "in an age when what matters most is the survival of basic distinctions," he explained in 1984. Blackford Oakes, the hero of Buckley's spy novels, understands this incarnates it, in fact. Blackford's "basic assumption," his creator revealed that year, "...is that the survival of everything we cherish depends on the survival of the culture of liberty; and that this hangs on our willingness to defend this extraordinary country of ours, so awfully mixed up, so much of the time; so schizophrenic in its understanding of itself and its purposes; so crazily indulgent of its legion of wildly ungovernable miscreants to defend it at all costs. With it all, this idealistic republic is the finest bloom of nationhood in all recorded time, and save only that God may decide that the land of the free and the home of the brave has outrun its license on history, we Americans must contend, struggle, and if necessary fight for America's survival."
This fight Bill Buckley has waged, and waged magnificently, for the better part of a century. Let Us Talk of Many Things reminds us of what a rollicking, roller-coaster, high-wire, breathtaking, brilliant performance it has been, and of how much fun he, and we, have had along the way. The best of Buckley's speeches turns out to be one of the best of Buckley's books; the perfect way to reacquaint ourselves with, or to introduce a young conservative to, the significance of Bill Buckley's achievement.
Through it all, Buckley remains grateful. If there is a key to his conservatism, an animating theme to his reflections, that is it: gratitude. He wrote a book by that title (1990), and in his speeches he emphasizes gratitude as "the first responsibility of the student" and of anyone who enjoys the patrimony of the West. For him, the ultimate degradation of democracy is ingratitude. "We are left with the numbing, benumbing thought," he warns, "that we owe nothing to Plato and Aristotle, nothing to the prophets who wrote the Bible, nothing to the generations who fought for freedoms activated in the Bill of Rights. We are basket cases of ingratitude, so many of us."
"We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead," he says. "The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us." With this book, as with his life, Bill Buckley has enlarged our patrimony and given us a gift which we cannot repay, except by gratitude.