THE POOP: A discussion of William Frank Buckley Jr. is indisputably the starting point for any discussion of modern American conservative thought. The founder of The National Review (once considered an intellectually engaging publication, back when Bill was in charge), the author of God and Man at Yale (in which the Skull-and-Boner argued that the Ivy League had fatally strayed from following the footsteps of Christ), and the man behind such successful institutions as the Conservative Party (under whose banner he ran a failed campaign for mayor of New York in 1965), the Young Americans for Freedom (famous for opposing the hippies in all of their manifestations back before the punks taught us that the way to neutralize a hippie was by being more offensive than they were instead of less), and the Blackford Oakes novels (a tedious series of spy thrillers – a dozen in all, astounding considering I’ve never met anyone other than myself who’s read one – about an improbably named all-American bull-stud who, like Buckley, was once a CIA spook in central America), Buckley has been the most prominent face and voice of the right for over forty years.
And what a face, what a voice! Buckley (who came to his conservative politics in the usual way, by being born to an unspeakably wealthy family of oil barons), despite coming from what was, at the time at least, ‘new money’, is the very spirit and image of white-bread northeastern quasi-aristocracy. A favorite of pundit-watchers because he’s so easy to parody, his trademark slouch (the man hasn’t sat up straight since 1949), patrician demeanor (he was almost cosmically obligated to marry a woman named Patricia) and slurring transatlantic accent (many have observed his tendency to draw out a patented “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahr” for what seems like hours, as if scanning each individual brain cell for le mot juste, only to come up with some completely banal word like “shoe” or “Democrat”) are as simple to riff on as his tired old-school politics. He’s also famous, like fellow-traveler George Will, for his big-words approach, and he’s always ready to deploy a ten-dollar word when a one-dollar one will do, probably because he’s so rich. But one thing observers consistently seem to miss is that Bill, unlike George, as often as not will get the big words wrong. In my younger days, when I was first becoming aware that any dingbat who yelled loud enough could forge a career as a talking head, one of the things that most attracted me to Buckley the Younger was not so much his willingness to bust out some impossibly fancy word, but rather his willingness to bust out an incorrect or imprecise fancy word and then just forge ahead anyway, knowing that his audience would be too cowed to dare call him on it.
His politics are actually a bit of a snore. When he first came to prominence, during the civil-rights era, during a time of social upheaval, of hippies and Black Panthers and Democrats who weren’t just diluted Republicans, he must have seemed like a real paradigm-shifter. But after decades of cozying up to the Reaganites, he’s been outpaced in right-wing radicalism by several generations of younger conservatives, and today, his stalwart policy points (don’t invade capital, keep a handle on creeping socialism, look out for the reds, and remember that God is in charge) are downright tame, the very jumping-off points that the movement he helped found has long since moved past. (Reagan, a longtime friend, wanted to make him the ambassador to Afghanistan, which at that time was occupied by the Soviet Union; Buckley agreed only on the condition that he have an entire battalion of mujaheddin troops attached to him as a personal retinue of bodyguards. How the history of the modern world might have been altered with the instillation of frowsy, blathering plutocrat William F. Buckley as Kabul’s own Col. Kurtz!) Even in those rare cases when he breaks ranks (as he did when he famously advocated drug legalization) or tries for some calculated outrage (as he did when he just as famously advocated tattooing the buttocks of homosexuals as a warning against AIDS), he comes across as a fuddy-duddy who just wants the young kids to remember that he’s still alive. A single column by mustachioed Walter Peck lookalike and professional culture warrior Brent Bozell – curiously, Buckley’s son-in-law – contains more punch than Buckley himself has managed to mix up in a decade.
Still, it hasn’t been a bad career for the grand old man of 20th-century conservative thought. He got a Presidential Medal of Freedom from his frat buddy George W. Bush; he kick-started a revolution in thought, or at least in propaganda, that has made its way to the highest echelons of American politics, economics, and society; and he has a really big boat. He can get on TV pretty much any time he wants to, and although his heyday of falling off his chair while discussing Nicaraguan regime change with Bill Casey on Frontline is far behind him, as long as documentary filmmakers need someone to rattle on about Jack Kerouac, he’ll draw enough of a paycheck to hire immigrants to polish his boat. Best of all, when he inevitably succumbs to a debilitating stroke, no one will notice.
WHAT’S THE ONE THING HE KNOWS FOR SURE? His god doesn’t cotton to communism.
DEFINING MOMENT: While teamed up with Gore Vidal to provide live coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Buckley was so outfoxed by his broadcast partner, and so stymied in his attempt to defend the brutalization of protestors by the local police, that he had a meltdown that he later described as having “rocked television”. Gathering his lolling frame into a pugnacious boxer’s stance, Buckley – perhaps the least physically threatening man in America – growled, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a pro-, crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” He went on to falsely claim that he fought in the Second World War, and ranted and raved as Vidal, who knew a good thing when he saw it, sat there with a look of vast amusement on his face as if the Barnum and Bailey Circus had just popped out of Buckley’s chest.