On Preserving The Tokens of Hope and Truth


William F. Buckley Jr.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is taken from WFB’s 2000 speech collection Let Us Talk of Many Things.

Remarks at a Testimonial Dinner for Henry Regnery; the Racquet Club, Chicago, April 12, 1972

Henry Regnery was a publisher who brought out books by conservatives (his son is an official of the successor company, Regnery Publishing). I had just returned from visiting China as one of the journalists who accompanied Richard Nixon, and the experience was fresh in the memory.

WHEN I LEARNED that I would be preceded by Russell Kirk and David Collier and Jack Kilpatrick and Vic Milione and Stan Evans and Eliseo Vivas, I wondered why Louis Dehmlow hadn’t, while he was at it, arranged to produce Ezra Pound. To present me at the end of this list of speakers is, to say the least, dramatically insecure . Kirk, Kilpatrick, Vivas, and Buckley. It was Abraham Flexner who remarked that “For God, for Country, and for Yale” was surely the greatest anticlimax in the English language. But I am here, as we all are, to register our solidarity with a man who has been important to all of us in one way or another, indeed to some of us in a combination of ways : as a friend, a publisher, a mentor–in my own case all three. I have not only read books he suggested I read, but even written books he suggested I write: and this requires a very special relationship.

It is a night for reminiscences, and I think it is accurate to say that I have known Henry longer than any of the other speakers here tonight, having met him even before Russell Kirk did . I am especially happy about the fecundity of his noble house, inasmuch as I remember, during the very dark days just after God and Man at Yale appeared, that Henry was wondering whether any writer would ever again consent to write for a publishing house which had midwived such an outrage. It is characteristic of Henry that when he reached this slough of despondency, he didn’t do what most of us incline to do–call out for help, or reassurance, from our friends. I still have the letter from him, advising me that he had devoted the night before–after seeing the first rash of reviews–to rereading the book . He concluded that he had been correct to publish it and, so far as I know, never gave another thought to his decision to launch the book, not even when the University of Chicago took the occasion to affirm academic freedom by discontinuing its Great Books contract with the Henry Regnery Company.

It is hard to recall, in the light of later experiences, how much fun it used to be to publish a book . When I came to Chicago to meet with Henry and discuss such matters as jacket design, it was automatically assumed that I would stay at his big house in Hinsdale, where over the course of several years I, and subsequently my wife and I, spent so many evenings. I think I should pause, in deference to historical accuracy, to record that there was a certain risk at that time in spending the night with the Regnerys . To begin with, it was during the years of their martial Quakerism–if Professor Vivas will permit the oxymoron. Translated, that meant: No booze. This posed a quite awesome prospect for a young author only a few months away from Fraternity Row at Yale University. But providence has a way of stringing out its little lifesavers–and sure enough it transpired that across the street from Henry, in another big house, lived a most informal and exuberant gentleman, an artist named Kenneth, who had befriended Henry and, by the expansiveness of his temperament, Henry’s friends, known and unknown, ex officio. So that at approximately six o’clock in the afternoon, Kenneth would throw open his shutters and, at the top of his lungs, cry out, “If Henry has any guests staying with him, thee-all can come over for a drink .” That disposed of that problem .

The other problem was that Henry’s guests sometimes tended to sleep later than Henry’s four children . Depending on my mood, I give different answers to the question I am sometimes asked: When did you stop publishing with the Henry Regnery Company? When I feel provocative, I say : Sometime after I stopped sleeping with the wife of the company’s president. In due course I chivalrously divulge that Susan was then six years old, and she and her two brothers and her little sister would all four of them come to bed with me at about six o’clock in the morning and giggle with apprehension when they heard the footsteps of their mother coming to relieve the beleaguered guest. I would do my sleepy best to entertain them, but they were thoroughly spoiled . Because the bed in question was often occupied by Roy Campbell, and he would begin instantly, on being boarded by the children, to improvise great tales of giants and giant-killers; and it was not long before they would find themselves under the covers with Russell Kirk, who would tell his tales of ghosts, in accents baroque and mysterious. I could not hope to keep them so much excited by tales of Keynesianism at Yale.

They were as I say very happy days, in which book publishing was something of a personal partnership between publisher and author. I remember hustling for McCarthy and His Enemies–a speech in Milwaukee, driving up in Henry’s car with Regnery officials Bill Strube and Kevin Corrigan, Henry at the wheel, the trunk loaded with books, which we hawked shamelessly after the speech was concluded. I think we sold seventy-five books that night, and when, long after midnight, we finally reached Hinsdale, exhausted, it was with grins on our faces, as if we had drilled a gusher.

Henry has spoken, in a published piece, about the “dismal” 1960s, which is how he refers to the decade that introduced Camelot, the Playboy Philosophy, and Mario Savio. Usually when one refers to an unhappy decade it is in order to highlight the happy contrast with the succeeding decade. But concerning the 197os, Henry Regnery is not at all optimistic, not at all . “The threat of extinction,” he surmises, “is now much greater than it was then : those bent on destroying civilization are better organized, and the defenses are weaker.” He tells us that there won’t be–I use his language–any “money or glory” in it, but, he says, “we have inherited a great and noble tradition, and it is worth fighting for.”

On that proposition we are all, I assume, agreed–at least, all those of us who paid $25 to attend this dinner. On the other hand, it is obvious that by no means everyone is agreed that this is so. It was ten years ago that I heard the most succinct statement on this point, by a fashionable young literary iconoclast, who put it this way: Once upon a time, it was worth dying–for two reasons . The first was that heroism was rewarded in another world . The second was that heroism was rewarded by the memory of man . However–he said–now that we know from the scientific evidence that there is in fact no other world, no Christian heaven, and now that we have invented weapons which are capable of destroying all mankind and therefore all human memory, what reason is left to run the risk of death in war?

This is a blunt way of saying it, and by no means suited for mass consumption. After all, the average man is not absolutely convinced that H. G. Wells was that much more on top of history than, say, Christopher Dawson; or that George Bernard Shaw had the better of the argument with G. K. Chesterton or C. S. Lewis.

The accent is quite clearly discernible . The sharp edges of the arguments nowadays stress not so much the nuclear war that would abolish mankind, as the senselessness of war ; indeed, derivatively, the senselessness of a convincing defense system . Why the Pentagon? What would be the point of it?

It used to be, finding oneself in such a corner, that one had merely to reach into one’s quiver and pull out the arrow that had “Freedom” written on it. Touch it down on the skeptic, and he would waste away, like the witch come into contact with water.

You will have noticed that this does not work anymore. Freedom is increasingly a subjective condition, in the assessment of the thought leaders . Professor Ross Terrill, writing the two most influential articles that have appeared in our time on the subject of Red China, is to be distinguished from the famous apologists for Stalin’s Russia, who made their way by simply denying the crimes imputed to Stalin.

Terrill denies nothing. Although he does not in fact dwell on the atrocities–the mass executions, the terrorism, that kind of thing–he does not disguise the conditions of life in China today. After informing us that there is no freedom to practice religion there, nor to vote, nor to express oneself freely, nor to read books or periodicals one desires to read, nor to change one’s job, nor to travel to another city or another country, he says ingenuously, “People ask me, Is China free?” He answers them, incredibly, with great difficulty. Depends what you mean by freedom, he says . Freedom is always defined with reference to the limitations of the group, and whereas the operative group in the West is the individual, or the corporation, or the labor union, in China it happens to be the whole state.

And he illustrates: Consider the writer Kuo Mojo. In the 19305 he wrote books for a mere four or five or at most eight thousand people, and now he is required by the state to write books that will appeal to twenty, thirty, or fifty million people . “Is that wrong?” the young professor asks. Then there is the scientist whose affinity was for abstract science but who was recently directed to concentrate exclusively on pest control . “Is that wrong?” Terrill asks, anaphorically: as we begin to understand the lethal quality of the ideological egalitarianism that rushes in after practical diplomacy, such that Richard Nixon, who went to China to establish a dialogue with Mao Tse-tung, ends by likening Mao’s revolution to America’s revolution–ends by saying that we will have a “long march” together . And there is Nixon seated next to Madame Mao Tse-tung, watching a ballet which has become agitprop, a violation of art as well as of taste ; it was as if we had invited the presidents of the black African republics to the White House to show them a ballet on the theme of Little Black Sambo. And Mr. Nixon, returning to the United States, proclaims the great enthusiasm the Chinese people feel for their government . Indeed. The Chinese government has many ways of generating enthusiasm, and no doubt Mr. Nixon is professionally fascinated by them, even as Henry Regnery would be fascinated by methods of teaching authors how to write books that sell not five thousand but fifty million copies.

We see then the movement of Western opinion: What, really, is so bad about Red China? Their ways are not our ways, to be sure, but is it seriously proposed that we should be prepared to die if necessary in order to avoid living by their word, rather than by our own–which is in any case corrupt, racist, and decadent?

Henry is right, when he generalizes that it will be hard to teach people to oppose the effronteries of the modern world . Henry published a book called In Defense of Freedom, by Frank Meyer, who would have been here tonight except that he died two weeks ago. Even in the early 196os, Meyer ’s metaphysical defense of objective freedom was–somehow–just a little bit embarrassing, and even to the finest of people, the finest of friends, the most ardent of counterrevolutionaries.

“If the Republican Party does not find a way to appeal to the mass of the people,” Whittaker Chambers wrote me after the election of 1958, “it will find itself voted into singularity . It will become, then, something like the little shop you see every now and then in the crowded parts of great cities, in which no business is done, or expected. You enter it and find an old man in the rear, fingering, for his own pleasure, oddments of cloth (weave and design circa 1850), caring not at all if he sells any. As your eyes become accustomed to the gaslight, you are only faintly surprised to discover that the old man is Frank Meyer.”

Those oddments of cloth, by a familiarity with which a few men know to hesitate not at all when someone asks the question: Is it wrong for the state to tell the writer what to write? Is it wrong for the state to tell the scientist what to study? Those few do not hesitate for a moment to say: Yes, it is wrong. It was always wrong, is now wrong, and will forever be wrong. The old man with the oddments of cloth is fingering some of the truths that Henry Regnery has endeavored over the years to propagate : yes, in books, some of them, that sold only five or eight thousand copies ; some that sold even less . But what more can a man do, than give himself to making available a book to the man who hungers for it? In Russia it costs what for many is a month’s wages to buy a novel of Solzhenitsyn in the black market . And there are old men–and old women, and young men, and young women–who in the far reaches of that vast country transcribe by hand, from Radio Liberty, which they risk prison by listening to, the new novel of Solzhenitsyn, word after word, sentence after sentence, a process that takes months to complete: resulting not in thousands of copies, but in dozens or perhaps a few hundred : the oddments of cloth, circa the golden age of civilization, viewed synoptically. It is worth everything to preserve those oddments, to make them available to those who are graced with a thirst for them: or–nothing is worth anything at all. Henry Regnery was never confused on this point. As long as people are free to remember, there will be those who will give thanks to those who thought, as Henry has done, with loving care to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.