Friday, February 29, 2008

Buckley's vibrant voice and unique life

From Henry Allen of the Washington Post (hat tip: C-J)...

What a grand and grandiloquent monster of genial and mischievous self-creation William Buckley was....

...the eyebrows -- the eyebrows! -- wandered off like the vagaries of life itself, one frowning while the other vaulted up his forehead in triumph, horror, irony. Dead now at 82, but so alive in memory....

He was the Connecticut millionaire's son trained to despise affectation and love modesty -- and yet . . . he had the gifts of a great comedian, gifts that are irresistible to anyone in this land that so honors the perpetual undergraduate. And such a vortex of contradictions: the Roman Catholic prep-school Skull and Bones Yalie heir to an Irish family's Mexican oil fortune. (He spoke Spanish before he spoke English.) Foe of anti-Semites, advocate of tattooing AIDS carriers on the buttocks, champion of McCarthyist Communist-hunting, and of the legalization of marijuana. His outrageousness immunized him against effective condemnation.

That last sentence/thought is very interesting!

In 1986, he wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "I asked myself the other day, 'Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?' I couldn't think of anyone." A monster, or, as the French say, a monstre sacré, one whose grandeur puts him beyond criticism.... one pitied Buckley in the next decade when he founded the National Review. He was getting too much attention, laughing too hard, skewering too many enemies and getting away with it.

...puns such as the one that appeared in the National Review when it was learned that the American Academy of Dermatology and Syphilology was dropping the last two words of its title: "Skinicism is only sin deep."

Buckley seemed to be having so much fun, no matter how dark and difficult his positions could be, such as his magazine's early support of segregation or his defense of Joe McCarthy. So much fun, in fact, that he could debate Ronald Reagan over handing the Panama Canal over to Panama -- Buckley favored the hand-over, unpredictably enough -- and remain friends with Reagan even after saying to him: "The force of my illumination would blind you."

Of course, the argument could be made that there would have been no Reagan presidency without Buckley, the man who made conservatism exhilarating, the man who convinced a substantial part of the public that it was liberals, not conservatives, who were the lugubrious navel-gazers.

Buckley was a man of wild energy, a man who claimed to write his syndicated column in 20 minutes, a feat possible because he was, in the words of a former employee, "the fastest typist I ever saw." He wrote 5,600 of those columns, by one account. He wrote more than 50 books, including 10 spy novels and journals of his sails across the Atlantic, along with a children's book he claimed to have written in 45 minutes. He gave 70 speeches a year. He ran for mayor of New York. With his wife, Pat, he conducted a blue-chip social life. His television show, "Firing Line," ran for 33 years. He played the harpsichord.

Norman Mailer, who also attained monstre sacré status but had to work at it harder, said of him: "No other actor on earth can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep-school kid from next door, and the snows of yesteryear." He was in the Army during World War II, and in the CIA afterward....

Once I saw him debate William Shockley on "Firing Line." Shockley had won the Nobel Prize for his work on transistors but had moved on to a theory of racial inferiority based on intelligence tests.

Buckley despised him, but...a Shockley is unbeatable in argument -- they're too good at defending themselves, and they always get the last word.

The program was a donnybrook of true vexation on the part of Buckley. I thought maybe he'd have to leave Shockley with a draw. Then he made the move he must have been waiting to make the whole time.

I have to quote from long-ago memory, but I think I have the sense of it: One topic we have neglected to light upon is the remarkable fact that Asians and Jews tend to score markedly higher on intelligence tests than members of our ethnic group, Dr. Shockley.

Before Shockley could summon up his full harrumph, Buckley glanced at his wristwatch, and no doubt with a flash of the eyes, a dance of the brows, and a glare of a smile, he said: "But I see we've run out of time. This is William Buckley, for 'Firing Line.' "

The last word, at least, was Buckley's. And the last laugh.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home