Friday, February 29, 2008

William F. Buckley

So William F. Buckley has entered the church triumphant, where he is presumably arguing with archangels and chatting with cherubim and enjoying very long siestas with seraphim. George Will and David Brooks have both, as have many others, written eulogies. Will's is exactly what you expect, gracious, eloquent, and filled with interesting facts and quotes. But David Brooks' piece pays homage to Buckley's great gift to political discourse, his sense of humor, by remembering his own youthful parody of Buckley - which Buckley himself appreciated so much he hired Brooks. David Brooks starts out his eulogy of William F. Buckley patting himself on the back - something Buckley himself would have heartily approved of.

I only saw Firing Line once, when I was spending the summer in Washington with a lesbian friend. The subject was homosexuality, and Buckley was being attacked by a priest for not being conservative enough on the subject. I was fascinated because I had no idea this kind of dispute was possible - William F. Buckley, not conservative enough? The priest at one point asked Buckley, "What right does a sodomite have?" To which Buckley, with that droll, tilted-head expression, replied, casually withering his guest, "He has a right not to be run over by a tank from you."

The New York Times, in its obituary, noted something I have always thot was deliciously ironic: The National Review, paragon of capitalism, is not profitable and never has been: it depends on donations from readers to stay afloat. The great advocate of ambition and rugged individualism is a long-term charity case.

I will miss Buckley because his extraordinary self-confidence came not from an ironclad and rigid belief in the superiority of his ideas, although that clearly played a part, but from his belief that he could listen well to his opponents, understand their perspective, and then convince them that they were wrong. He understood that if you want your opponents to listen to you, it is immensely helpful if you begin by listening to them. He also seems to have understood that if you really do want to prove your opponents wrong, you have to understand their arguments as well as possible, because if you make a mistake in your opposition, they will dismiss you.

And of course he understood how important it is to have fun in politics. He reminds me - how ironic is this - of Emma Goldman, the early 20th century radical, who said "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." Buckley invited as many people as possible to the dance.

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