Though I was raised in a household where "Firing Line" was one of the few shows we watched and I still admire and try to model the verbal opulence of William F. Buckley, it looks like I am going to have to be the one to say a few sane words to balance the effusive obituaries.
His enthusiasm and the gray skin of intellectual respectability his language pulled around the tottering remnants of 1950's anti-communism, nascent political operations of Christian conservatism and bits of lopsided libertarian freedom-lust and corporate cupidity did indeed, as the eulogies suggest, help greatly to make that collection of moral midgets with diverse agendas appear like one big circus elephant. And the crowd eventually followed the elephant. By the time Reagan was deposited into the howdah of the republican party, the boomers like myself were already feeling like we too might be wealthy enough to have something to loose and were long accustomed to an unrepresentatively conservative balance voices on major media outlets thanks to the pioneering TV presence of Mr. Buckley.
Did William Sloan Coffin have a TV show? Buckley's upset with modernity as it touched Yale was already on display in his 1951 book, "God and Man at Yale", when Coffin, drained of his interest in fixing the world via the machinations of the CIA, took up religious study at Yale. Where Buckley's life work was a reactionary response to liberalism such as he perceived at Yale, Coffin passed him going the other direction in that same university. And note that Yale is not the monster factory you might presume by it's present graduate in the whitehouse nor Mr. Buckley: Coffin and Abu Dubya were in Skull and Bones together as was Buckley later on.
But intellectualism is not the decoration that Americans, blue collared or red necked or red, white and blue populist like to declaim. And it is not the power-grab that Eric Hoffer made it out to be. It is another kind of labor, just one more tree in the orchard of human toil. It should be judged, as all supposedly practical efforts are, by its fruits.
The New York Times' obit will be typical:
Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas respectable in liberal post-World War II America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.
All great biblical stories begin with Genesis, George Will wrote in the National Review in 1980. And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.
That conflagration has burnt a lot of middle class families out of their American dreams.
The fruition of WFB's life long love of conservatism is NOT the moments he cherished such as the ascent of the vacuous Ronald-of-no-memory. The fruit was just ripening when Bush II took office. But now that fruit is coming ripe and you can smell it everywhere in the ditches and back alleys around Baghdad. "System of ideas" says the obituary....hmmm. The pastiche of conservative causes were all of tactical scale though Buckley cast spells of wholeness upon the collection of them. What wholeness then lets Mr Buckley, the sometime libertarian, excuse excessive police powers if the goal is anti-communism:
We have got to accept Big Government for the duration for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. And if they deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington even with Truman at the reins of it all.
That two faced espousal of freedoms...isn't the current administration's dismissal of its legal obligations under FISA straight out of Buckley's old essay? Deregulated communications give us Murdoch uber alles, unregulated energy gives us Enron. Such are the fruits of Milton Friedman ideas championed by Mr Buckley and set loose upon us in the Reagan and subsequent administrations.
Its only my opinion but I say the wholeness that ties the disparate strains of conservative intentions together is on the strategic scale: they are a little bit afraid of almost everything they don't personally control. That in his last years, Buckley distanced himself from the religious excesses of Bush ideology and disavowed the Iraq war merely inform us that exuberant tacticians do not necessarily recognize the course their unwitting strategy compels.
Even Norman Mailer had to admit, nobody did so good a job as Buckley of dressing up the empty heart of conservatism so that it could be trotted out in the media and attract others who, self aware or not, did not want to share the world as the equals of the outgroups they misperceived or outright projected.