Monday, November 07, 2011

Bill Buckley Was Not the Pompous Ass Neal Freeman Channels

WFB and Edward Teller
Neal B. Freeman, a long time friend of William F. Buckley, Jr., thinks he knows how Buckley would have reacted to current GOP candidates. Freeman's opinion piece praises Buckley as courageous (which he was), but errors significantly by channeling a caricature of Bill Buckley instead of Buckley himself.
"How then would Bill Buckley have addressed today's question: 'Buckley's Legacy: How Would the Patron Saint Turbo-Charge Conservatism?'"
. . .
"First, he would have summoned the Republican stalwarts for catechismic instruction."
Huh? Buckley didn't do this in any of the presidential elections during his lifetime. But, that doesn't deter Freeman, who wraps his political dreaming in personal anecdotes and Buckleyesque words and phrases such as "synecdoche" and "ontologically speaking".

I was not a close friend of Bill Buckley as Freeman was. But I did have a 30+ year friendship with him. The last time I saw him was when I was visiting New York in the late 1990's, and he invited me to lunch. On the basis of my own friendship with Bill Buckley I find it odd that Freeman would assert:
"It was a humbling experience to be edited by Bill Buckley. I still have the original of the first editorial I wrote for National Review. We used Royal typewriters in those days to pound out copy on yellow foolscap: Here and there, one of my black words peeks through a blaze of red ballpoint ink. It was his conceit that if you couldn't write, you couldn't think; and that if you couldn't think, you were unlikely to prosper in his friendship."
[emphasis added]
Freeman seems to confuse Bill Buckley as a boss with Bill Buckley as a friend. Never in our three decades of correspondence did Bill ever take me to task for my written prose. I don't think that is due to the fact that I'm superior to Freeman in either thinking or writing, but perhaps I am in understanding what friendship meant to Bill Buckley.*

Bill Buckley did not normally critique his guests and friends. His personal interaction was unlike the pattern of his professional life as a polemicist and debater. Even in that he was a joy to watch because he skewered the opinion not the person and often used a kind of backhanded wit not a sledge hammer-type attack or meanness.

Bill was not the type of person who would have called current Republican presidential candidates on the carpet and presumed to lecture them on their errors. He had too much respect for the kind of courage and substance it takes to become a prominent conservative political figure and endure the kind of anti-conservative blows those in the media deliver daily. Though Bill Buckley might have talked about questions he had about Mitt Romney's economic plan, he would not have:
"bored in on what he perceived to be a lacuna: namely, the widespread presumption that Mr. Romney can fix our broken economy with an economic plan that is manifestly inadequate to the challenge."
Neither would Bill have:
"segued quickly into a mini-lecture on why contemporary international affairs call for a somewhat less, uhhhh, parochial foreign policy than [Governor Perry] has heretofore advanced"
. . .
"concluded, under the unbending terms of the Buckley Rule—-which, as you will recall, holds that conservatives should support for election the rightward-most viable candidate—-that Mrs. Palin was sufficiently rightward but insufficiently viable."
. . .
"counseled [Speaker Gingrich] to add to his senior staff an editor with plenipotentiary powers"
. . .
"spent his time much as he had with Mrs. Palin, in a quiet inventory of the intellectual warehouse. What does Mr. Cain know? What has he read? Is he . . . up to it?"
In other words, in personal interaction, Bill Buckley was fun, funny, sparkling and made you feel like you were the center of his universe. He was not the grilling, pompous ass, always out to lecture that Freeman channels.

How do I know this aside from the fact that personally Bill was gracious and caring and never in his lifetime called in presidential candidates to lecture them on their flaws?

Take Freeman's application of the "Buckley Rule" which says that "conservatives should support for election the rightward-most viable candidate". Bill Buckley supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 and never, so far as I know, rescinded that support after the Goldwater electoral debacle. If Goldwater was a "viable" candidate, gaining only 39% of the votes cast, "viable" is a fairly low standard--one which the candidates Freeman's Buckley "interviewed" have pretty much met.

Then, of course, there was Bill Buckley's own run for mayor done not for the purpose of winning but of forwarding the conservative case against the liberal Republicanism of John Lindsay. Apparently, as in his support for Goldwater, a viability that gets the candidate within a few percentage points of winning, was not a key factor in his own decision to run.

Again, I say, Bill Buckley was not the condescending, pompous ass that Freeman paints. He was warm, witty, charming and really cared about the people he talked to. That's why he had so many friends of quite different political views, religious views and social class.

*Bill Buckley was the kind of friend who, when I wrote that I was trying to get into a graduate program at a picky school, asked if there was any way he could help. He ended up writing a recommendation for me and overstating my abilities: "I have met, and experienced intellectually, hundreds and hundreds of young people in the last twenty-five years, and [T D] Williams is among the two or three whose promise is in a class of its own." He continued noting my "formal credentials", "high intelligence", "fine character" and being "well read". That's the kind of encouragement and support that flowed out of Bill Buckley. Unfortunately, Freeman missed it in his portrait of Bill. I cherish as a material indication of Bill's friendship the carbon copy he sent me of that wonderful recommendation.

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