It is ten years since Bill Buckley died. His grins and chicken-scratch edits, his perorations and his piano recitals, his generosity and his flair, were so vivid that there come moments when you think, like Milton dreaming of his late espousèd saint or Wordsworth turning to speak to his heart’s best treasure, that he is still alive. At other times his career and his legacy, though still interesting and important to understand, seem a thousand years old.
He is most vividly present today as a controversialist — the protagonist of hundreds of debates, many of them on his TV show, Firing Line. His sparring partners and his TV career have been the subject of books: Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties, by Kevin Schultz, and Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot.
Buckley the debater is a figure of present relevance because he is so unlike the present. Schultz and Hendershot treat him as a representative of a lost generation of public and/or bohemian intellectuals, unafraid to put their ideas out there and let the best rapper win. Similar generations were the Family of New York Jewish writers and academics, and the Beats (worlds collided when Jack Kerouac appeared on an episode of Firing Line, razzing Allen Ginsberg in the studio audience). Why, Buckley’s latter-day fans ask, can’t we talk like he and his frenemies did, in complete sentences, even paragraphs, with pauses to hear the other guy, instead of rants, snark-fests, or tweetstorms?
Like most admiring looks back, this picture of Bill and his world is romanticized. Bill was more than a curator of current ideas; he wanted his to prevail, and he would use almost any weapon — logic, jokes, or the occasional fast one — to ensure that they did. If his pistol misfired he could, like Dr. Johnson, strike you with the butt end of it.
Still it is true that honor came only from prevailing over worthy enemies. Bill wanted to go up against the best, and best them. That meant hearing them out, and sometimes drawing what they had to say out of them. I got testimony to this after appearing on some panel at the New School, when an older man asked me if I was still in touch with Bill (Firing Line had ended its run). When I said I was, he told me to thank Bill for offering the hard Left its only TV forum in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Other shows might mention them as freaks or interesting outliers; Bill let them speak (then tried to subdue them).
Charlie Rose had some of the same catholicity, and Robert George and Cornel West face off regularly. Otherwise, Bill’s world of discourse is as gone as Atlantis. The only error in Hendershot’s insightful book is when she claims his modern heirs are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I have been on both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. But, with few exceptions — a Colbert Report tribute to Buckley, a Daily Show segment about James Madison — my segments were short, scripted ambushes (scripted for the hosts; guests had to fend for themselves). The best you could do was bob and weave. The shows were nothing like Firing Line.
When we survey the field of conservative polemic, Bill has as few heirs. Fox News, it appears, was a gigantic mistake, frenzied and stupefying. The shelves of winger best-sellers are as inspiring as a collection of tombstones. Social media: You are having many followers from Skopje? You are liking them? Good work is always rare, because the iron law of talent is that a few have a lot, some have some, and most have none. But the proliferation of undigested new media, and the eternal pressure of the market, has exerted a powerful pull for stupidity. So has the willingness to be pulled.
Is (name the liberal forum) better? No. But sometimes fighting them is joining them, depending on how you fight them.
In addition to being a celebrity pugilist, Buckley was an institution-builder. He cared both for the magazine he founded and for the conservative movement of which it was a part. He wanted a conservative party — in the sense of a tendency, not an electoral organization — that would think both realistically and correctly. This is why he picked fights on the right with those he deemed out of this world or crucially wrong: Robert Welch and Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and George Wallace. This is why he recanted his own segregationist views.
Buckley the institution-builder was historically important. Rick Perlstein, the left-wing Right-watcher, told me shortly after Bill died that he had not been that important; that’s when I concluded that Perlstein was not that watchful. But it is true that Buckley’s present influence on one of the institutions he helped build is nil, because the conservative movement is no more. Its destroyers are Donald Trump and his admirers.
Buckley wrote about Trump the politician once, in an article for Cigar Aficionado, which ran in the spring of 2000 after Trump’s brief pursuit of the nomination of the Reform party, Ross Perot’s then-rudderless vehicle. Buckley ID’d Trump as a demagogue, narcissist division. “When he looks at a glass,” Buckley wrote, “he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America.” This was a political as well as a personal judgment: Trump sought office not to accomplish anything, but to advance and gratify himself. Candidate Trump had issues in 2000, and more in 2016, and beyond. But Bill knew his man. They had been fellow New Yorkers for decades. Bill did not regularly read Page Six, but his wife Pat did. Bill had observed every step of Trump’s public career. He knew Trump was gilt all the way down.
Trump’s first-year accomplishments testify to the conservative movement’s momentum. After he stopped talking about the Supreme Court’s power to write bills, or appointing his sister to it, he turned judicial nominations over to conservatism’s legal infrastructure and to Mitch McConnell, and produced a string of good ones. The tax bill reflected years of Paul Ryan’s, and other congressmen’s, thoughts and hopes. Candidate Trump’s foreign policy might be summarized as, Every Yazidi for himself (a position Buckley embraced at the end of his life); President Trump, taking counsel of his generals, has been more proactive. Where conservatives had not done their homework — as in thinking about how to replace Obamacare rather than merely attack it — Trump came up empty-handed.
That is Trump’s business, and America’s. But what has Trump done to conservatives?
One of Trump’s abilities, which he possesses at the level of genius, is finding and naming the weaknesses of enemies: Low-Energy Jeb, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary. Related is his ability to create weaknesses in his supporters. A weak man needs weak supporters; strong ones might make him feel insecure, or differ with him. And so, whether from design, or simply because it is the way things work, Trump’s conservative admirers have had to abandon and contradict what they once professed to hold most dear.
The most egregious example is the religious Right. The religious Right is the latest version of an old model of American politics, variously incarnated by Puritans, abolitionists, and William Jennings Bryan. It, like its predecessors, has argued that America and individual Americans need to have a godly or at least moral character to thrive. Now the religious Right adores a thrice-married cad and casual liar. But it is not alone. Historians and psychologists of the martial virtues salute the bone-spurred draft-dodger whose Khe Sanh was not catching the clap. Cultural critics who deplored academic fads and slipshod aesthetics explicate a man who has never read a book, not even the ones he has signed. Followers of Harry Jaffa, the most important Lincoln scholar of the last 60 years, rally round a Republican who does not know why the Civil War happened. Straussians, after leaving the cave, find themselves in Mar-a-Lago. Econocons put their money on a serial bankrupt.
Admiring Trump is different from voting for him, or working with him. Politics is calculation; “to live,” Whittaker Chambers told Buckley, who quoted it ever after, “is to maneuver.” But to admire Trump is to trade your principles for his, which are that winning — which means Trump winning — is all.
In three years (maybe seven), Donald Trump will no longer be president. But conservatives who bent the knee will still be writing and thinking. How will it be possible to take them seriously?
The short answer is, it won’t. But that is not an answer that Bill would give. Minds change, hearts change. That’s why he spent so much time arguing, with foes and friends alike. It will take a lot of arguing to rebuild a conservative movement that one can contemplate without scorn.