Kevin D. Williamson is decamping from National Review to The Atlantic. WFB would have been delighted. (“WFB” is how we refer to the founder of our magazine, William F. Buckley Jr. — I mean, how we traditionally refer to him in the pages of NR. I suppose this should extend to the website, too.) He always wanted his people to move up and out into the big, broad world. He did not want to keep them penned up in a ghetto.
(Some of us love the conservative ghetto — and are grateful for it — let me hasten to add. Plus, the conservative ghetto is fairly roomy.)
On a related subject: WFB welcomed the birth of other conservative magazines (some of them). I remember in particular his pleasure at the birth of The Weekly Standard in 1995. He made an eloquent statement at an American Spectator dinner around that time. He did not want to be all alone in the world, good as he was — capable as he was. He sparked a proliferation of ideas, and institutions associated with those ideas.
Anyway, WFB would have been glad about Kevin and The Atlantic, but I’m not sure I’m that big. I am a little bent out of shape. I should work on it.
KDW and WFB have a lot in common, as I have noted before (in this blogpost, for example). They are very talented, very stylish people — and forgive me if I talk about WFB, along with Kevin, in the present tense for a while. A reconciling of the tenses gets awkward.
They are literary men, as well as journalists. (WFB was a novelist, of course. I believe a novel from KDW is forthcoming — maybe the first of many.) They care about the copy. They want the prose to sing (except when they don’t).
They will use unusual words or common words, depending on their need. WFB was famous for big and unusual words. He was often teased about it, including by friends. And, to a degree, he cultivated the reputation. But the truth is, he picked the right word, whether it was fancy or plain. (He titled one of his books — his collection on language — The Right Word.)
Years ago, a man told me he had canceled his subscription to National Review after “too much untranslated French.” WFB thought you should have known, or looked it up, or learned it. Also, he was writing for other educated people. He was unblushing about this. He was unashamed of it. He was slammed for it too, although this is little remembered on the right today. (He was constantly slammed as “effete,” throughout his life.)
At the same time, he could go low, when that was right. Give you an example. Once, Rick Brookhiser told WFB about the behavior of some people — not very good behavior. WFB spoke a single sentence: “People can be so shitty.” It was exactly the right reply.
Like WFB, Kevin Williamson is devoted to high culture — to music, art, poetry, and all the rest of it. Like WFB, he is unapologetic about it. He may like his country music and NASCAR too — I’ll have to ask him about that — but I’ll be damned if he’ll apologize for liking Bach, Rembrandt, and Keats.
Some on the left think that high culture is incompatible with conservatism. (It’s one of the things we strive to conserve!) Some on the right think so too, which is shocking.
WFB hosted many piano recitals, harpsichord recitals, and other recitals in his salon — one or another of his salons. His guests came from all over the world, and they would smoke cigars and drink liqueurs, served to them by the Buckleys’ Latin American domestic staff. (Not sure whether they were legal.) Was WFB an “elitist,” a “globalist,” or whatever the latest epithet is? The fact is, he was WFB, containing multitudes.
Today, there are people who want to make a populist out of him. They want to shove a red hat on his head. They quote the bit about the Boston telephone book. (“I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” I could write an essay about WFB and this statement, and intend to. He addressed it often, in the decades after he penned it. The world kept turning him to it.)
WFB once said, “Within every conservative, there is a streak of libertarianism.” I think there’s a streak of populism, too. But with WFB, you’re talking about a guy who attacked the Beatles — the Beatles! — at the height of their popularity. He didn’t care what was popular; he had his own taste and judgment. That’s Kevin Williamson, too.
They are political men, and intensely political men. (WFB more than Kevin, I would say.) But politics does not permeate their every moment. Neither man is a political robot, or an ideologue, or a party factotum. (Kevin doesn’t even belong to a party.) Both know that there are great spheres of life that are politics-free, or ought to be.
When Kevin writes theater criticism, it’s theater criticism — not conservative theater criticism, whatever that is.
From time to time, anti-intellectualism is in fashion, and KDW and WFB will have none of it. Each has great respect for genuine intelligence, for the life of the mind, for scholarship. This seems obvious to say, but, strangely, it needs saying. Intellectuals can be stupid, as everyone is fond of pointing out. I have spent a career pointing it out. Yet — this is almost never said — non-intellectuals can be stupid too, and so can anti-intellectuals.
Okay, let’s talk class. In few areas are Kevin and WFB so alike as they are in this one. Each of them has an awareness of class — any aware person does — but neither of them makes too much of it, and they both take people as individuals, basically.
You know the classic definition of a Marxist? “People who love humanity in groups of one million or more.”
Kevin and WFB came from very different backgrounds. WFB was born with a silver spoon in his mouth — into the world of governesses, private tutoring, and international travel. Kevin was . . . not. As he has recounted many times, he came from a world of unprivilege and dysfunction.
Yet he does not regard poor or dysfunctional people as holy. Neither does he regard them as victims. He knows them too well for that. Some of them are holy, of course, and some of them are victims. But a lot of them are neither. They are people. So are rich people. Again, this may seem too obvious to say, but often it isn’t.
Let me tell you something: It was WFB, more than anyone else, who set me straight on wealth. He purged from me any resentment of wealth that may have lingered in me.
When I grew up, I often heard the word “obscene”: “obscene wealth.” “Obscene” modified “wealth” like “grievous” modifies “error,” or “arrant” modifies “pedantry.” We used to scoff at people who had their car windows rolled up in the summer — it meant they had air conditioning.
WFB enjoyed what money can buy, and do. He once wrote that he had “the most beautiful pool this side of Pompeii.” Critics screamed at him. But he was celebrating the skill of the artisan — the designer of the pool — and expressing appreciation at owning it.
When I first saw it, I said to Bill, with a grin, “Is this the most beautiful pool this side of Pompeii?” He gave a grin back. (The pool had seen better days, I think, when I first encountered it.)
More than most people, Kevin and WFB know there are good and bad among the poor, and good and bad among the rich, and good and bad among the in-between. They do not think in class terms — except when this is appropriate — even as they shun groupthink.
One of Kevin’s great advantages, I’ve always thought, is that he is unintimidatable on the subject of class. You can’t out-woe him. You can’t say, “No-body knows the trouble I’ve seen.” You can’t guilt him. You can’t tell him to check his privilege, or squawk that he lives in a bubble. He will see you and raise you. And he’ll tell you to kwicherbitchin.
(This is a bumper sticker I once spotted on a truck in the parking lot of a Virginia Cracker Barrel: “Kwicherbitchin.” I think it’s my favorite bumper sticker of all time. I tell myself this — the admonition on the bumper sticker — frequently.)
Like WFB, Kevin is fearless. He does not write scared. If he does, it doesn’t show. A lot of us write scared, trust me. “Without fear or favor” is the brag of many a writer — certainly many a journalist — but few make good on the brag. We tend to write with both fear and favor (sometimes justifiably, but most of the time probably not).
I’ll be frank (too frank?): When Trump rose to the dominant position in the Republican party and the conservative movement, many conservatives switched — to Trumpism, populism, nationalism. (Many were there already.) Whether it was sincere or not, it was easier. Kevin remained a conservative — a conservative laced with libertarianism (or a libertarian laced with conservatism).
Last weekend, I wrote that Senator Marco Rubio had demonstrated spine by showing up at a television forum on gun control, after a mass murder at a school in his home state. He is generally an opponent of gun control, and he was facing students who had survived the shootings, and family members of those who hadn’t. Many people scoffed at me, “Oh, real courageous, he was!”
Well, there is such a thing as political courage. It is not necessarily common. There is also such a thing as journalistic courage — which includes the willingness to say something that your regular audience doesn’t want to hear. You risk readers, listeners, viewers. You risk a lot, actually.
“Get on the Trump train or get crushed.” We conservatives heard that a lot in 2016 and ’17, and Kevin was deaf to it. He remains so. He insists on riding his own train. He is almost incredibly unperturbed. He sets an example for the rest of us, I think.
Everyone loves to “speak truth to power.” That is relatively easy to do. On our side, we attack Hollywood, the U.N., and the New York Times, and we bask in applause. Much harder to do is to speak truth to people — people who may not applaud what you have to say.
Kevin is happy to stand up to the Left, heaven knows. I remember one article on transgenderism that provoked howls around the world. As he proceeds with The Atlantic, there’ll be a lot of howling — a lot of it. (I think it’s started already.) Kevin is also willing to stand up to the Right, or elements of it. So was WFB, of course. Today, he is often remembered as a come-one, come-all conservative — an all-embracing godfather of the Right. This does not credit him with the painful, costly stands he felt compelled to take.
I cherish a story about Joseph Brodsky, the dissident poet in the Soviet Union who emigrated to America. Norman Podhoretz once said to Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the greatest of dissidents, “Brodsky stood up to the KGB. Why can’t he muster the courage to stand up to Susan Sontag and The New York Review of Books?” Bukovsky answered, “You have to understand: It was easier to stand up to the KGB. Everyone you admired, everyone you cared about, everyone whose approval you wanted, would applaud you for it.”
Kevin likes applause and approval, like everyone else. But he won’t write to get it.
In his boldness, Kevin emboldens others. I suppose I pull fewer punches than most people, both in my political writing and in my music writing. Indeed, I’ll pat myself on the back and say that I pull fewer than almost anybody. But has anyone ever pulled as few as Kevin?
And with him gone from our precincts — is it incumbent on me to pull fewer yet?
Kevin has a sense of himself as a writer, not a politician. Many writers now act like politicians, appealing to a constituency, appeasing them, and even delivering applause lines. They write like they’re running for office (and they talk the same way on television). Kevin feels a duty to readers — to write as honestly, and as well, as possible. That is a priceless thing.
One of my favorite things to do in life was read WFB; one of my favorite things to do in life is read KDW. Sometimes I disagree with Kevin, sharply. Sometimes I disagree with him really sharply. You know what? So what? If you want to read someone you agree with all the time, read yourself. (Sometimes I’m not sure I agree even with me.)
My friend Kevin has the mind and spirit of a writer. He has the gifts of sympathy and ratiocination and broadness. He has an awareness of history and a knowledge of literature. He keeps abreast of the times and also has a sense of the timeless. He likes fun, even mischief. Then there’s style. (WFB prized style almost to a fault.)
I’ll be reading Kevin in The Atlantic, of course. But you have to say, he belonged at Bill Buckley’s magazine. He and it were made for each other. In a way, he’ll always be an NR writer, wherever he goes.