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Squire Willie | The Nation

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Squire Willie

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When Buckley went to Yale, it was probably the most conservative of Ivy League schools. But father Will looked upon it as the centerpiece of the liberal establishment, so naturally son Bill entered Yale thinking so too. Here was his first real training as an exhibitionist: His stunt was to challenge all things Yalie just for the sake of challenge. Buckley was a lousy student, but Judis has a ready excuse for that. It wasn't that Buckley's intellect was limited, oh, no. He was just made for livelier things. "Buckley might have excelled as a student at Yale, but he was not interested in scholarship or even in the play of ideas. He liked debating with his professors in class, where the response was immediate, but even during his first two and a half years at Yale, before he was consumed by the Yale Daily News, he never read beyond what was assigned in class."

About the Author

Robert Sherrill
Robert Sherrill, a frequent and longtime contributor to The Nation, was formerly a reporter for the Washington Post. He...

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In fact, from earliest manhood Buckley had the mind of a huckster. And the only thing he wanted to peddle was himself. When he finished at Yale, he asked Archibald MacLeish if he thought it would be a good idea to go on to graduate school to study political science. MacLeish said yes, because it would help Buckley discover what he thought. Buckley replied, "No, I know what I think. The question is whether this will be helpful to me as a salesman. Will this credential help in getting heard?"

Time and again Judis tries, without success, to rescue Buckley's mind from the obvious measure of its shallowness. All evidence shows Buckley running about an inch deep as student, as journalist, as writer and as lecturer. It is a trail strewn with gimmickry, little else.

His shallowness as a writer was something he settled for gladly, and from the very start. When he graduated from Yale he briefly thought about doing a broad, general study of American college education, but that would have meant real labor, so he opted instead for a quibbling book focused on the one school he knew something about. The result was God and Man at Yale, which was essentially a vanity press operation. Regnery, which brought it out, was barely solvent; the Buckleys paid most publication and publicity costs. To read God and Man at Yale today is to enter a mind-set as outdated and outlandish as Sax Rohmer's. The basic idea of the book is that the alumni of Yale should force the school to toe the Christian/capitalist line and fire any professor who doesn't toe it, too. Buckley seemed particularly incensed by a professor who said religious sanctions against premarital sex were antiquated and unrealistic.

If God and Man at Yale was lightweight, McCarthy and His Enemies, which Buckley wrote with his equally intense and slightly wackier brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, scarcely tipped the scales at all. Having as its goal the rationalization of McCarthy's irrational actions, the book fell upon the marketplace, in the words of Dwight MacDonald, as "a laborious piece of special pleading which gives the effect of a brief by Cadwallader, Wickersham & Taft on behalf of a pickpocket caught in the men's room of the subway."

Judis says Buckley's political writings (except for The Unmaking of a Mayor, which he rates as "stylistically brilliant") are "pedestrian." That is much too much praise. In fact, anyone with the courage to read back through Buckley's work will find no bright insights, no generosity of spirit; its best passages are what one critic called "verbal tinsel," and its worst what another called "verbiage swabbed in clotted fat."

Example: "The conservative has two functions, the paradigmatic and the expediential. It is with reference to the latter function that I tend to prefer the Moynihan plan to the congeries of alternatives."

And: "His dalliance with and insecure instrumentation of interventionist fiscal economics reflects nothing more than the regnant confusion among economic theorists, and the acquiescence even by free market economists in the proposition that it is a political necessity to talk imperiously in the economic seas, even though we all know that the President sits on the throne of King Canute."

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