Sewell: Good riddance Buckley

By By James Sewell and By James Sewell

By James Sewell

Last week, William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual founder of modern conservatism and a prescriptive grammarian if there ever was one, passed away after a lifetime of provocative and at times, persuasive debate over the ideological direction of our country. His rhetorical flourish and rapier wit were the boon and bane of entire generations, though probably unknown to most under 30.

News of his passing spread through the traditional grapevine and into more modern day media spheres such as YouTube, which had a number of Buckley-related videos, including clips from a debate with Noam Chomsky, himself an erudite political observer, and a decidedly non-prescriptive grammarian to boot.

As a student of linguistics, I cannot help but stand in awe and admiration for Chomsky, so perhaps my view of the debate is somewhat skewed, but my impression of Buckley during that performance was that he was outmatched intellectually and had to resort to rhetorical tactics like ending a round of debate he was losing by signaling for it to end just as soon as he got one last verbal jab in, which was often devastating. Buckley was all-too-capable of doing so since his forum was “Firing Line,” the show he ran for about three decades. He was the original thinking man’s Bill O’Reilly.

Such tactics, retreats from sophistication to sophistry, cannot cover his support of McCarthyism or his lack of support for the Civil Rights movement. Although he certainly did not support the foreign policy of W’s administration and spoke out against it, it’s a good deed that came a day late and a dollar short.

His strangely accented speech, which seemed more than halfway to the Queen’s English, masked a deeper prejudice against the masses and his apathy toward the common man. Above all, he relished the fame, celebrity and wealth, which allowed him to relax in sybaritic comfort aboard his yacht (he was an accomplished sailor), rubbing elbows with fellow men and women of privilege and prestige and proclaiming with great flair and wit the axioms of conservative ideology.

It is considered uncouth to speak ill of the dead, but false idolatry is no less a sin. He was no war criminal and maybe easy to like in old age, sharing the nickname Duckie with his wife Pat. But his legacy must acknowledge that certain positions he took, such as the aforementioned support for McCarthy, did not age well, nor is it easy to conjure cogent arguments to support such positions.

To be sure, he possessed a formidable mind and he almost single-handedly bestowed credibility on conservative values and revived the movement from its deathbed. He didn’t descend to the modern-day depths of vicious talk-radio reactionaries. He produced a son, Christopher, who has himself earned a reputation as a writer and was a family man.

Aside from the aphorisms, affections and affectations, we are faced with the facts: he supported bad policies and failed to support good ones. While a legion of Tucker Carlson clones mourn the passing of the intellectual giant of the Right, the rest of us should take a less somber and more sober perspective.

And so sails the good ship William F. Buckley Jr. May he rest in peace.

[email protected]