William F. Buckley, Jr. died this week at the age of 82. During his long life he made the case for conservative political philosophy. He loved debate and could argue almost any point of philosophy, exhibiting a wide range of scholarship and an intimidating and amusing vocabulary. He founded the National Review and the TV show, “Firing Line,” a show whose audience may have contained more liberals than conservatives. I watched it for years and learned a lot. Two lines have stuck in my head, one from John Kenneth Galbraith and the other from Buckley.
Galbraith was a guest several times. It is reported that he and Buckley were friends in private life. Their discussions were delightful to listen to and were full of clever arguments, sometimes even instructive. Neither was in awe of the other as they both knew each other very well. On one particular show, Buckley had just published another in his series of Blackford Oakes spy novels. That wasn’t the subject of the evening’s discussion but Galbraith managed to work it in as he was commenting on one of Buckley’s assertions about the economy. He noted that, “Bill has a well-recognized talent for fiction.” This sentence won the debate for Galbraith that evening.
On another evening, I think it was before a college audience, Buckley was asked to define conservatism’s vision. He replied, “Oh, conservatism has no vision. It is purely technical.” Today the so-called neo-conservatives do have a vision: to bring the whole world, particularly the Arab cultures to democracy and capitalism. It is not going well. Buckley himself noted that we could not win the war in Iraq with any strategy that we would consent to use. On other occasions he went on to say that he thought that education in our own society should have an element of indoctrination of American principles of democracy, free enterprise, and so forth. I took his remarks to mean that most people do not take well to education and cannot be trusted to think for themselves, so need to be indoctrinated.
One last observation told me quite a lot about his character. He told a story about one of his visits to Paris. He spoke French well but not perfectly. He was sitting in a restaurant at lunch time and, when he was asked for his order, he ordered “deux sandwiches” because he could not remember the singular article for the word, “sandwich.” He would use a linguistic trick rather than admit that he didn’t know something. This story was amusing but told us a lot about the man. He used his intelligence to win debates, not in a dispassionate search for the truth.
Here is a poem in tribute to the memory of Bill Buckley. It can be sung to the tune of “Billy Boy.”
Oh, what did you say, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, Just what did you say, Willy Buckley? Though punditic, I would guess, It escaped me, I confess. It was simply too circumlocutory. What was that last word, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, That last word I heard, charming Billy? I suppose a shibboleth Which you'll guard until your death, You remain too obfuscatory for me. Contemplate my complaint, Billy Boy, Billy Boy. Try to show some restraint, winsome Willy. May the flexuosity Of your phraseology Be deciphered or stay speculatory? Periphrastically, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, Pleonastically, learned Billy, I'm not sure I would oppose Weltanschauungs you propose, But they’re too polysyllabistic for me. Oh, what have you spawned, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? What has crawled from your pond, honored Willy? You had civilized debate; Coulter fulminates with hate; And Rush Limbaugh is just stridulatory. Please elucidate, Billy Boy Billy Boy. Could you explicate, clever Billy? Is it perspicacity Or loquacious sophistry That makes folks sing your praises but ignore me? Stephen Baird, February 29, 2008