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The Spark of Moral Urgency

by Mona Charen

Mona Charen reviews Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus, edited by Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball (Encounter, 518 pp., $29.95)

What a task it must have been for Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball to assemble this meaty anthology of Bill Buckley’s columns and magazine pieces. Of the millions of words he penned over the course of a monumentally productive career, how to select the best and most characteristic? A tough one. Still, it must have been fun ranging through the files and microfiches (younger readers: ask your parents) discovering forgotten gems and bouncing along on the waves of a deliciously polemical life, just as it is deeply satisfying for the reader to plunge into this collection.

By the end of his career, with the Cold War won, Bill Buckley came to seem something of an avuncular figure in American life, celebrated for his wit and élan, and somewhat defanged as a combatant. There’s no reason to regret this. Men of 80 are not as inclined as those of 30 to wield cudgels. But just as the elder Buckley is remembered affectionately, it’s bracing to reread the earlier Buckley, the intensely engaged public intellectual bringing the full weight of his glittering intelligence and judgment to the great questions of the day. When his beam shone on a subject, it was illuminated indeed.

The greatest of the great questions Buckley tackled was the survival of the West. No one better elucidated the nature of the conflict with Communism to his countrymen. Some of these essays will perhaps seem dated now that we know how the grim contest came out. Then again, consider this reflection upon what a George McGovern presidency would mean:

It has become thinkable that someone will be elected president who quite clearly desires second-class international status for the United States. There is no reason growing purely out of pride why we could not be happy as a second-class nation. The pride of a Swiss is at least the equal of the pride of an American.

But for America to become a second-class power would mean that the world would belong to the Soviet Union, and, in our day, a world that is dominated by the Soviet Union would be a world intolerably bitter to first-class spirits. First-class spirits such as America has pre-eminently nurtured, with our concern for freedom, for the individual, for the underdog, for national sovereignty. There are those ready to give all of that up provided the government will send them a check every week and pay the medical bills and take away H. L. Hunt’s money.

Though the Soviet Union is gone, we have just as many reasons to fear a world in which the United States is a second-class power. And we are arguably governed by a president who is at least as McGovernite as the 1972 Democratic nominee. A world dominated by the Islamists, or the Turkish/Venezuelan/Iranian axis, or the Chinese, would be equally (or nearly equally) “intolerable to first-class spirits” — and by the way, is that not a wonderful phrase? And in Pelosi/Reid/Obama do we not see the identical syndrome of preferring a government check and wealth redistribution to world leadership?

The challenge of Communism was much more than a challenge to American vanity or dominance. Though much of the intellectual class preferred to see the Cold War as “two scorpions in a bottle,” Bill Buckley raged against this perversion of reality. In 1977, digesting the horrifying news from Cambodia, Buckley was movingly direct:

I am quite serious: Why doesn’t Congress authorize the money to finance an international military force to overrun Cambodia? . . . Our inactivity in respect of Cambodia is a sin as heinous as our inactivity to save the Jews from the Holocaust. Worse, actually; because we did mobilize eventually to destroy Hitler. . . . Two out of seven Cambodians already dead. That is the equivalent of 57 million Americans killed. Even Stalin might have shrunk from genocide on such a scale. And what are we doing about it? Waiting for Rolf Hochhuth to write a play? Is there no practical idealism left in this world? Only that endless talk, which desecrates the language, and atrophies the soul?

As that passage demonstrates, Bill Buckley’s work was suffused with moral urgency. It could take the form of a cri de coeur, as above, or of a more subtle objection to diplomatic choreography. In 1984, he wrote “For Moderation in Osculation,” in which he wondered why Spanish prime minister Felipe González was moved to embrace Fidel Castro when the latter stopped in Spain on his way home from Yuri Andropov’s funeral:

You will say: Ah but don’t you see, it is a part of the Mediterranean style. You cannot, if Spanish blood runs through your veins, greet another leader without embracing him. . . .

So far as one can remember, if this is so, it is something new. There are no pictures easily recalled of President Roosevelt smooching with Josef Stalin. FDR did give Stalin a few countries, as souvenirs of their meetings, but he drew the line at a public embrace.


A word about style. It is simply impossible to overstate the grace, sparkle, and pizzazz of Buckley’s writing. Readers of Athwart History can look forward to reveling in well-turned phrases and startling juxtapositions. Here he meditates on an “unfortunate” 1967 papal encyclical: “The difficulty with this generality is that if it is kneaded for meaning, it can be made to say a good many things that obviously were not intended.” “Kneaded for meaning” is a brilliant description of interpreting writing that is flabby and vague.

And the words! In the popular imagination, Bill Buckley is perhaps best remembered as the leading sesquipedalian columnist in America. Though this became fodder for late-night comedy and even a Disney movie portrayal, it’s worth pausing to consider the sniper-like precision with which he deployed his prodigious vocabulary. Speaking of Adam Smith in 1951, Buckley described Smith’s vision of man: “Politically he will work to frustrate that prehensile element of every society, the power-hungry statists.” “Prehensile” means grasping, usually referring to monkeys’ tails. Describing Oliver North’s star turn before the congressional committee investigating Iran/Contra, he noted that a minority of viewers came away determined to punish North’s “contumacious bravura.” That sums it up.

Your humble reviewer confesses that she cheerfully turned to the dictionary several times in the course of reading these essays and learned that “supernal” means celestial or heavenly (Bill Buckley knew a lot of words about heaven), that “anaphora” refers to the rhetorical device of repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning of several verses, sentences, or paragraphs (used in reference to Jesse Jackson), and that “velleity” is the lowest level of volition. “Psephologists” study election returns.

Do you know what a “palinode” is? No, it’s not a paean to the former governor of Alaska. And I couldn’t find it in the American Heritage Dictionary. Webster’s had it. “1: An ode or song recanting or retracting something in an earlier poem 2: a formal retraction.” On one occasion, expecting an unusual word, your faithful reviewer looked up “ostrichism,” and couldn’t find it — not even in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then a bell rang, it was a neologism: the quality of being like an ostrich — used in reference to Dean Acheson. Ohhh!

Bill Buckley’s writing was most sublime when it was most personal. He had a limitless capacity to appreciate and cherish others (along with, it should be added so as to avoid mawkishness, a healthy capacity to hate that which was hateful). Included in this collection are his obituaries of and tributes to friends and colleagues. He loved generously and impartially and included among his dearest friends his frequent sparring partner John Kenneth Galbraith. Each obituary conveys the individuality of the departed, the particular and often amusing foibles and eccentricities that endeared him or her to Bill. He noticed so much about others. Remembering John Chamberlain, he wrote “I learned then . . . the joy of a definitively pacific presence. Ours might have been a meeting to discuss whether to dump the bomb on Hiroshima; and John Chamberlain’s presence would have brought to such a meeting, whatever its outcome, a sense of inner peace, manliness, and self-confidence.” His reflections on Lyndon Johnson are tart but fair and hit the bull’s-eye: “The Great Society did not lead us to eudemonia. It led us into frustration — and to the lowest recorded confidence vote in the basic institutions of this country since the birth of George Gallup. But: He was a patriot, who cared for his country, who was unsparing of himself, and who acquired at least a certain public dignity which lifted him from buffoonery, into tragedy.”

These essays and columns, spanning 50 years, range nimbly — from Social Security to brave Laotian air-force officers; from Chuck Colson to Lillian Hellman; and from John Kerry to ocean yacht racing (well, maybe that last is not such a wide gap). The man himself is gone, but his stylish, polymathic, and deeply passionate work continues to inform and inspire.

– Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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