Editor’s note: This is the text of an introduction Norman Podhoretz delivered of William F. Buckley Jr. in November of 2004. The event was the Center for Security Policy honoring WFB with their “Mightier than the Sword” award in New York.
Nearly half a century ago, when I had only just joined the staff of Commentary as a lowly assistant editor, I scored a great coup by persuading Dwight Macdonald, one of the liveliest and wittiest polemicists of the day, to write an article about the first ten issues of a new magazine called National Review. The piece then appeared under a title which — as in later years I shamefacedly confessed to Bill Buckley — came not from Macdonald but from me: “Scrambled Eggheads on the Right.”
As a young liberal already in the process of moving further Left, I was for my sins delighted to have ordered up so heavy an artillery barrage against a right-wing intellectual magazine almost the minute it showed the whites of its eyes. But there was one thing about Macdonald’s assault that bothered me, and that was his breezy assurance that Buckley didn’t know how to write. I, on the contrary, thought that Buckley was a brilliant writer, and being a literary man as well as a man of the Left, I found myself applying to him the words W. H. Auden in his own left-wing period had used of two writers whose conservative views he detested:
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;….
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Unlike Time, I did not then forgive or pardon Buckley, though I did continue to harbor a sneaking admiration of his literary skills. He, by contrast, managed in due course to forgive me for the Macdonald article, and a few other aggressions I subsequently went on to commit against him in the heat of political debate.
Of course, the act of forgiving — difficult even for a good Christian like Bill — was made considerably easier when, as he once put it, the light of conservative truth began to penetrate my eyes, which had previously been blinded by the delusions of the utopian Left. And by that point, thanks to another of Time’s powers, Bill’s youthful version of conservatism had almost imperceptibly mutated into a perspective not all that distant from the neoconservative position to which I had at my own pace been gravitating since the late 60’s.
But Time, as is its wont, has not stood still, so that by now, it has worked yet another transformation; and this one has resulted in a tremendously ironic development that neither Bill nor I would ever have dreamed possible. Amazingly, he is nowadays in the position of trying to forgive me for holding views to the Right of his own on what some of us call World War IV. Conversely, I keep trying to open his eyes to the truths of the Bush Doctrine, now that those eyes have been dimmed, though thankfully not altogether blinded, by certain ideas stemming from the so-called realist school of thought.
Mirabile dictu, as he might say of this bizarre reversal of roles.
Be that as it may, since Bill is being honored today with an award based on the mightiness of his pen, I think it proper to emphasize that aspect of his incomparable contribution to the life of this country’s mind. I cannot imagine that anyone today would fall into the same egregious error of judgment that Dwight Macdonald made back in 1956 about Bill as a writer. And yet my impression is that his historic achievement in building the conservative movement has overshadowed the great literary powers which were an indispensable instrument in the forging of that achievement. Which is why these powers are still not sufficiently appreciated, not even by many of his admirers.
Let me say, then, flat out that Bill Buckley is one of the very best writers of English prose we have in America, or anywhere else the English language holds sway. It is a prose capable of manifold marvels — marvels of exposition, marvels of lyrical description, marvels of evocative portraiture, marvels of wicked humor and sly wit. Best of all, perhaps, are the marvels of devotional incantation. Here is one small sample, a particular favorite of mine:
… if there were nothing to complain about, there would be no post-Adamite mankind. But complaint is profanation in the absence of gratitude. There is much to complain about in America, but that awful keening noise one unhappily gets so used to makes no way for the bells, and these have rung for America, are still ringing for America, and for this we are obliged to be grateful. To be otherwise is wrong reason, and a poetical invitation to true national tribulation. I must remember to pray more often, because providence has given us the means to make the struggle, and in this respect we are singularly blessed in this country, and in this room.
So indeed we are, in no small part thanks to William F. Buckley Jr.’s mighty pen, whose victories over the thousand swords that have leaped from their scabbards against him and his work it is our great honor to honor today.