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The warm tributes to William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative hero who died Wednesday at age 82, have emphasized all that everyone could appreciate about him: the formidable intelligence, the capacious vocabulary, the otherworldly productivity, the playful wit, the graciousness and deep, wide-ranging friendships.
He was a beloved figure who had entered American lore and, in that sense, belonged to all of us. But in the fond reminiscences, it shouldn’t be forgotten what he hated. Buckley was an anti-Communist to the marrow of his bones, whose lifelong mission was to crush Marxist totalitarianism. In this, he was uncompromising, relentless, and — this is what makes it possible to minimize it now — successful.
Buckley was a master debater who took on (and usually beat) all comers, but he insisted that, with Communists, there could be no dialogue. He convinced the Yale Political Union in 1962 to rescind an invitation to the head of the Communist Party U.S.A., Gus Hall. Buckley argued, bracingly, “We can no more collaborate with him to further the common understanding than Anne Frank could have collaborated with Goebbels in a dialogue on race relations.”
Buckley’s anti-Communism had many roots. His father, an oilman who did business in a Mexico roiled by revolution, was a committed anti-Communist. And Buckley’s Catholic faith made him a natural foe of atheistic Marxism. But the deepest foundation of Buckley’s anti-Communism — and his politics generally — was a belief that the individual is paramount and can flourish only in freedom.
This was a philosophical and religious conviction, but also — if you will — a personal one. No one was more an individual than Bill Buckley. He spawned so many impersonators because his mannerisms were utterly original. To know him — as I had the honor of doing as the editor of his magazine, National Review — was to be delighted by his irreducible Buckley-ness and all the enthusiasms that defined him, from traveling with his special brand of peanut butter, to his devotion to his King Charles spaniels, to his boyish enthusiasm for nautical charts.
This is a man who instinctively recoiled at the leveling, deadening conformity of Communism and would have died of boredom (or more likely would have been jailed or executed for brave, puckish provocations) within about five minutes in such a system.
Buckley said that Communism’s “extirpative passion is to eliminate man.” How? By eliminating freedom. “Without freedom, there is no true humanity.” Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, Buckley realized how difficult it would be to forever extinguish that hardy ember of humanity that is the individual.
Back in 1959, Buckley excoriated the flabbiness of thought that attended an invitation to Nikita Khrushchev to visit the United States. He concluded: “Khrushchev cannot take permanent advantage of our temporary disadvantage, for it is the West he is fighting. And in the West there lie, however encysted, the ultimate resources, which are moral in nature. In the end, we will bury him.” Throughout the decades, with his intellectual pickax, Buckley uncovered those ultimate resources.
He spoke often of the gratitude we owe our civilizational forebears and regretted that “a country — a civilization — that gives us such gifts as we dispose of cannot be repaid in kind. There is no way in which we can give to the United States a present of a bill of rights in exchange for its having given us the Bill of Rights.”
But Buckley did his utmost to repay it in kind. Long ago, he himself entered what he liked to call freedom’s House of Lords, and he is now due what he once movingly called for: “We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us. We must remember them in our thoughts and in our prayers; and in our deeds.” R.I.P.
© 2008 by King Features Syndicate