Politics & Policy

The Soul of Buckley

In a word, magnanimous.

It is with great sadness that I write of my departed friend, Bill Buckley. He was seven years my junior, and I had looked forward all these years to the office he would perform for me. I can repine however in the comfort of the Foreword that he wrote in 1984 for American Conservatism and the American Founding. He began: “If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him.” If he had lived to be a hundred, he could not have found better words to express the purpose of my life. So my epitaph is part of his legacy.

Buckley continued his Foreword: “He studies the fine print in any agreement as if it were a trap or treaty with the Soviet Union.” This was not however a negative comment. He knew that as an interpreter of the Declaration of Independence, and of the Gettysburg Address, I was concerned with subjects far more consequential than any treaty with the Soviet Union. At bottom, the disagreements concerning the American political tradition were disagreements concerning the nature of the human soul. And it did not take any argument to convince Bill Buckley that, when you came to the human soul, you did not fool around. Bill never forgot that my first book was on Aristotle and Aquinas.

He also knew that my Lincolnian perspective had not been represented in National Review. As far as Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, Jeffrey Hart, or Garry Wills, were concerned, John C. Calhoun, not Abraham Lincoln, was the hero of the American political tradition. For Calhounites, state rights, not natural rights, were the source of constitutional rights. And state rights could and did justify both slavery and Jim Crow. Kirk’s Conservative Mind made the rejection of the Declaration the key to the American political tradition. According to Lincoln at Gettysburg however (and Leo Strauss in Natural Right and History), the nation at its birth had been dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. This proposition had not been a favorite of editorial writers at National Review. Buckley could not openly endorse my flat opposition to his editors, but he made sure that what I had to say was published. At one point he sent a memo to his staff, that any manuscript of mine was to be sent directly to him. For many years, NR was virtually my only avenue of publication. All the left-wing journals were closed to me, particularly after I had supported Goldwater and drafted his acceptance speech. But the neocon journals were even more tightly closed, after I had demolished Irving Kristol’s highly advertised (but incredibly misguided) AEI lecture on the American Revolution. There was no Buckleyan magnanimity in neocon circles towards anyone who had refuted the sainted Irving. The only way they knew how to deal with me was to pretend I didn’t exist.

In 1967 Frank Meyer (with whom, like Willmoore Kendall, I had a firm personal friendship) and I went head to head in the pages of NR on Calhoun versus Lincoln. Later I had direct confrontations with Walter Berns and with Robert Bork. It was only because of Bill that I was not swept under the rug. But my appearances in NR gave me a much wider audience. NR’s readers were much more persuaded by my Lincolnian advocacy than were NR’s editors. On one occasion I crossed swords with Ernest van den Haag, that resolute and unflinching advocate of scientific positivism. Our dispute had its origins at a Philadelphia Society meeting, when I was lecturing on “We hold these truths to be self evident…” Van den Haag stood up and declared “There are no self evident truths…” I then asked him, “Is it not self evident to you that you are not a dog?” He replied, “No.” I then said, “Don’t you know that you are not a dog?” He again replied, “No.” I concluded the dialogue by saying “If you don’t know that you are not a dog, maybe you don’t know that I am not a fire hydrant.” I don’t think many there left without knowing why certain self-evident truths were the basis, not only of justice, but of sanity. There is no ground for human rights in positive law unless there is a prior ground in natural law recognizing that human beings are neither beasts nor God.

In an article in NR I had quoted Lincoln in 1854 as follows. “Equal justice to the south, it is said, requires us to consent to the extending of slavery to new countries. That is to say, inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical if there is no difference between hogs and negroes.” Of course, Van den Haag objected. If he didn’t know that he was not a dog, how could he know that a Negro was not a hog? Our exchange spilled over into the letters section. To it there was appended an editorial note, firmly endorsing Lincoln and Jaffa. It was unsigned, but investigation revealed that the editor in question was Bill Buckley.

I cannot conclude without mentioning Bill’s extraordinary sensitivity and generosity. On one occasion he was a speaker at U.C. Riverside, and agreed to visit us afterwards in our home in Claremont, a distance of 30 miles. (When I taught here, in the late sixties, I commuted on my bicycle.) We sent our son Philip, who was then in high school, to pick him up. He did so, and they chatted happily together, Phil being unaware that our family jalopy was being trailed all the way home by Bill’s chauffeur-driven limousine.

On another occasion, Bill was the speaker at a Claremont McKenna College banquet. Although I have through the years generally had good relations with the college administrations, this was an exceptional interval. One of my colleagues made his career in Holocaust studies as a kind of professional mourner. Unfortunately he had, like others, used his synthetic lamentations as authority for his leftist politics. But he had also written articles, comparing Israeli treatment of Arabs to Nazi treatment of the Jews, and otherwise depreciating Jews and Judaism. Yet over my protests he had become the poster boy for the college’s public relations. In the arrangements of the banquet, my wife and I had been seated in a far corner of the room, as far as possible from the VIPs. When Bill entered the room, to general applause, he strode rapidly across the dining hall to where we were seated, threw his arms around my wife, and hugged and kissed her. Only then did he turn to greet the others. That turned the official pecking order upside down.

One final note. In 1974 my younger son — the same who had driven Bill from Riverside to Claremont — graduated from Yale. To see him through, we had scraped the bottom of the family barrel until there was no bottom to the barrel. We simply had no money to go to the graduation. How Bill found out about this, I have no idea. But his check for one thousand dollars arrived, with instructions to go to the graduation, and later to stop at his New York home for dinner! I cannot begin to express how moving the experience was to attend my son’s graduation from Yale, thirty five years after my own. During the weekend there was a strange bonding of classmates who had been close friends and their families, the memory of which shines ever brighter through the years. To have missed that occasion seems now inconceivable. Once again, and forever, many thanks, Bill. And may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

 – Harry V. Jaffa is a distinguished fellow of the Claremont Institute.


The Latest