Squire Willie | The Nation


Squire Willie

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The greatest tribute to Judis's honesty is that nearly half of this book is devoted to tracing Buckley's visible decay as a right-wing spokesman. There is nothing heroic about his decline, nothing dramatic. It doesn't involve a twist of fate. It is simply the result of two things: shallowness (once again) and too many soft spots in his character.

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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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Roy Cohn was one of the most loathsome characters in American history, so why did he have so many influential friends?

Judis admits that by 1964 Buckley had said everything he had to say and would forever after be nothing but an ideological sideshow, that he had reached "the end of his development as a political thinker" and "he accepted that his intellectual role would be that of a popularizer and controversialist." By the mid-1970s, he was growing tired even of that role and, says Judis, seemed to be losing interest in politics entirely.

So much for Buckley's shallowness. As for his lack of character, that was amply demonstrated in his unwillingness to continue living the hard life of the outsider.

Snob though he was, Buckley gained his notoriety by riding the ugly crest of a right-wing anti-intellectualism that passed for populism in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was the strength of the McCarthy movement. "At McCarthy rallies," as William Manchester has pointed out, "they sang 'Nobody Loves Joe but the People,' and politicians were convinced that dark masses of troubled voters stood behind them." After Roy Cohn was dismissed from McCarthy's committee, a rally in his support was held in New York's Hotel Astor at which Rabbi Benjamin Schultz (the kind of Jew Buckley liked for sure) declared, "The plain people know that the loss of Cohn is like the loss of a dozen battleships." Buckley was there to applaud heartily, for although he detested "plain people" he knew that McCarthy's strength lay in their fears. The rabble was his army of the night, armed with piety. Likewise, it was the populist sweep behind Barry Goldwater's movement that doubled the number of National Review subscribers and for the first time made Buckley a voice to be noticed. Buckley had contempt for Goldwater and agreed with National Review editor Burnham that Goldwater was a "second-rate" candidate "surrounded by third- or fourth-rate persons." Privately Buckley ridiculed Goldwater as "Our Hero" and acknowledged to National Review editors that the very sight of the Senator on TV gave him "a sinking feeling." But with his usual cynicism, Buckley gave no inkling of his doubts in public and was only too happy to accept the misbegotten populist surge that inflated his journal's income.

But the snarling populism of the right wing that lifted Buckley up eventually brought him down. By the early 1970s, the new right was well on its way to deballing him. It had the gutter rebelliousness that Buckley no longer possessed; now he was soft. When the new right accused him of being an intellectual pansy, he made the mistake of fighting back by accusing its spokesman, Kevin Phillips, of being so gauche as to try to lure George Wallace into the conservative movement. He should never have challenged Phillips to a literary battle, for Phillips crushed the elitist piffle out of him with columnar broadsides such as this:

"Hell, Wallace isn't going to hook up with Squire Willy and his Companions of the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary. Nor can we expect Alabama truck drivers or Ohio steelworkers to sign on with a politics captivated by Ivy League five-syllable word polishers.... Most of the 'New Conservatives' I know believe that any new politics or coalition has to surge up from Middle America...not dribble down from Bill Buckley's wine rack and favorite philosopher's shelf.... There was, of course, a time when Bill Buckley was anti-establishment--back in the longago days when he was an Irish nouveau-riche cheer leader for Joe McCarthy. But since then, he's primed his magazine with cast-off Hapsburg royalty, Englishmen who part their names in the middle, and others calculated to put real lace on Buckley's Celtic curtains."

Realizing that he was much too out of shape to fight with this young ideological ruffian, Buckley quickly retreated to his study, explaining to one of his editors that he would not again respond to Phillips because "I have simply nothing to say to someone who is proud of his ignorance of [Eric] Voegelin [one of National Review's philosophical saints]."

Since at least the mid-1970s, mere ownership of the National Review was not enough to give Buckley clout (after Burnham's death, it became an untended garden of weeds, and Buckley himself seemed to lose interest in it, if for no other reason than that, as Hugh Kenner, a close friend and briefly one of his editors, once said, "National Review has some of the dumbest readers in the world"). He became less enraptured of right-wing idiocies and more tolerant of liberal mushiness.

And why not? Faddish liberals supplied the oxygen for his lowering flame. As Dan Wakefield once noted, Buckley "is becoming 'incorporated' into the public rituals of the society he attacks...and increasingly the rebel becomes a favorite performer before audiences who wholly disagree with what he says, but would defend to the death his right to entertain them by saying it--and the louder he says it, the louder they applaud."

Buckley became like Primo Carnera, who, having won the world's heavyweight boxing championship by fluke and having lost it through clownish lack of talent, turned to the wrestling circuit. No longer a journalist of any repute, Buckley's wrestling circuit comprised mainly campus lectures and Firing Line. As in wrestling, much depended on hokum, contrived animosity and opponents willing to take a fall. He delighted in luring liberals and left-wingers onto Firing Line and, having them physically cornered, pelting them with ad hominem accusations and nasty and nasty innuendo, "likening their views to those of suspected or admitted Communists. It little mattered whether his guests were also his friends." But such is the perversity of many establishment liberals that they actually thought it cute of Buckley to sidle up in a friendly way and piss on their legs.

As for his campus audiences, he practiced "what he called 'rhetorical brinkmanship' in order to gain their attention. At Rutgers, he called a Democratic think tank a 'zoo,' described Communists as 'barbarians.' " Hey, wow! It all became rather pitiful. "Bill," a friend once said of him, "has been impersonating himself for thirty years."

I wonder who it is that's impersonating Buckley now that he's gone?

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