A not-too-fond remembrance of “Squire Willie,” patron saint of post-World War II American conservatism.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.:
Patron Saint of the Conservatives.
By John B. Judis. Simon & Schuster.
528 pp. $22.95.
If it is true that the evil men do lives after them, William Francis Buckley can be assured a certain kind of immortality. Or perhaps it is going too far to say that he did evil. That is probably too active a word. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he lived off evil, as mold lives off garbage.
The garbage he is particularly associated with is that which began accumulating in the right-wing alley about forty years ago: McCarthyism, which Buckley took part in by writing speeches for Senator Joe and by praising with majesterial clichés (“McCarthyism is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks”); and the long-forgotten manifestoes of the Young Americans for Freedom, a frenzied campus movement which he helped found in 1960; and his pious defense of the kooks of the John Birch Society as “some of the most morally energetic self-sacrificing and dedicated anti-Communists in America.” In those days Buckley lent his name–as adviser or supporter or officer–to virtually every major crackpot right-wing movement in America, and his ideological soulmates were a group that long ago were banished to history’s padded cell: people like Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, the Rev. Carl McIntire, Dan Smoot, Dr. Fred Schwarz, Revilo P. Oliver, the Rev. Billy James Hargis, James L. Wick and similar names, which, if you are a genteel person under the age of 45, have probably never passed your lips.
Today Buckley does not live off right-wing garbage or anything else because he is quite dead, and has been for at least fifteen years. At least that’s my theory. But because the right wing is so sentimentally attached to its old shills, Buckley has been put away in hypothermal storage in the hopes that medical science someday will be able to defrost him and reactivate his brain. Meanwhile, the pretense that Buckley lives is carried on from time to time through stories about him, or ghosted under his byline, in such mortuary trade journals as New York and The New York Times Magazine.
As for the two-bit actor who plays Buckley on Firing Line, Lord knows he is a poor imitation, thinking he fills the part merely by uttering unintelligible gibberish through pursed lips while fiddling with pencil and clipboard. Many members of the general public, less gullible than the literati, are beginning to suspect that Buckley is a hoax. For instance, in New York a subscriber writes, “More than anything else, Buckley seems a media creation. Buckley is like the man in the aspirin ad who says, ‘I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.’ ”
I’m not sure that John B. Judis agrees with my theory about Buckley’s death, but I think he does, for his tone, as Buckley would have urged upon his biographer, is De mortuus nil nisi bonum. Of course Judis, being a good reporter, covers all the key periods of Buckley’s life in William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives: prep schools, Yale University, the Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, his work in books, his role as apologist for Joe McCarthy, the founding and operation of the National Review, his race for mayor of New York, his flunkying for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, his propagandizing for most of the right-wing governments of the world, and so forth.