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Squire Willie

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A not-too-fond remembrance of "Squire Willie," patron saint of post-World War II American conservatism.

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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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.

Going that route, a good reporter simply can't nil nisi bonum all the time. But for my money Judis steps much too gingerly through the deepest putrescence and does not seem sufficiently to notice the odor of, nor seem sufficiently repelled by, the dishonesties and sleaziness and bullying and ideological rubbish behind Buckley's dandified pose. In that sense, his book has too much of the spirit of a sanitized obituary.

Perhaps the trouble is that it shouldn't be a book. The true highlights of character (especially those of a minor actor) tend to get buried amid booklength blather. In 1968 Garry Wills turned down a contract to do a book about Buckley, explaining that he didn't think Squire Willie was important enough to be the subject of a book. He was right. Buckley simply isn't that interesting as a topic. In this Age of Boesky, for example, one finds it difficult to get very excited over even the shadier side of Buckley's career, as when the Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of fraud in a business deal. Naturally, Judis, having made the mistake of writing a book about Buckley, would have us think otherwise about his choice of subject. He claims "it is impossible to understand American conservatism without understanding Bill Buckley's extraordinary life," but I don't believe that, and I come no closer to being persuaded by endorsements Judis offers from such great judges of character as Ronald Reagan, who called Buckley (at a banquet in his honor) "the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era."

Occasionally Judis, apparently sensing that the air is going out of his tire, tries to pump it up with superisms. "Empowered by an inexhaustible energy and driven by an insatiable curiosity," writes Judis, "Bill succeeded at everything he tried." And of course, "more often than not, his decisions were brilliant." Even Buckley's dopey physical mannerisms are presented as probable winners in the Special Olympics' category for facial contortions: "His left eye twinkled, while his right gauged reactions and plotted future sentences." But Bill of the dexterous eyeballs isn't the only wonderful person here. Oh no. Sister Priscilla is "enormously competent," wife Pat is "a brilliant hostess" and National Review editor James Bumham "had an encyclopedic knowledge of world events." Why, even Buckley's old buddy Whittaker Chambers, whose public personality was as somber as the ghost of Hamlet's father, turns out to be, underneath the gloom, a real sweetheart "a jolly and very friendly man," as Judis describes him, or, in the words of a National Review editor, a "great corpulent ho-ho sort of guy." I tell you, that right-wing flock around Buckley really sparkles.

But, alas, all the pumping fails. Judis's labors--and they are admirable in many ways--cannot overcome the fact that Buckley was never very important and for quite a few years has been as irrelevant to the political contest of this country as his Cavalier King Charles spaniels are to the Westminster Dog Show or his two Bösendorfer pianos are to the Van Cliburn playoffs.

Let us, using material from Judis's effort and elsewhere, give this unpleasant fellow an obituary rendered down to the proper length.

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