William Buckley | Bleader

Friday, February 29, 2008

William Buckley

Posted By on 02.29.08 at 09:40 AM

I never had the pleasure of William F. Buckley's company. As a kid in the midlands immeasurably distant from Buckley's brandy and cigars, I had no way to measure him but by what he wrote. And as the New York Times recalled in its long obituary, the National Review, which he launched in 1955, asserted itself "by lining up squarely behind Southern segregationists, saying that Southern whites had the right to impose their ideas on blacks who were as yet culturally and politically inferior to them." This was not a momentary position. Let me quote myself in 2005 quoting the National Review of the next decade:

"In the 60s [federalism] grew fat on segregation, taking up the states' rights argument for allowing jim crow to die in bed. The Tribune couldn't countenance the [1963] Birmingham bombings, but William Buckley's National Review, which would champion Barry Goldwater for president the following year, was able to. 'Let us gently say,' it said, 'the fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur--of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro.' The magazine said some evidence supported this possibility.

"'And let it be said,' the National Review declared, 'that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court's manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice. Certainly it now appears that Birmingham's Negroes will never be content so long as the white population is free to be free.'

"Fourteen months later the National Review weighed in on the murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney in Mississippi. It noted that a federal grand jury in Neshoba County had returned indictments against local police officers. 'It is everyone's impression, including ours, that some, at least, of the Neshoba police are a crummy lot,' said the magazine airily. 'But we pause for reflection. Are "violation of the Civil Rights Act" and the even more tenuous "conspiracy to violate" going to become a catch-all charge by which the Federal Government can get its hands on nearly any citizen?'

"In the view of this conservatism, which has slowly taken over the country, the cure for jim crow was far worse than the disease."

The Tribune's editorial Thursday saying farewell to Buckley observed that "he tutored and inspired numerous young conservatives, including George Will, David Brooks, and Jonah Goldberg." As chance would have it, on the next page was a column by Goldberg, today an editor-at-large at the National Review. Goldberg was pondering  "loose ties" reported between Barack Obama and former Weatherpeople William Ayers, now a professor of education at UIC, and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, now director of the Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center. "What fascinates me," wrote Goldberg, sniffing at the company Obama was keeping, "is how light the baggage is when one travels from violent radicalism to liberalism." Ayers and Dohrn had planted bombs and were unrepentent! "Shouldn't this baggage cost something?" Goldberg wondered, and he urged reporters to ask "America's foremost liberal representatives [Obama and Hillary Clinton] why being a radical means never having to say you're sorry."

Even before Buckley died an argument was being waged over whether he'd ever said he was sorry for his magazine's support of jim crow. Ezra Klein of The American Prospect offered a March 2006 interview with Buckley at Bloomberg.com as evidence that he'd admitted his mistake: "Buckley said he had a few regrets, most notably his magazine's opposition to civil rights legislation in the 1960s. 'I think that the impact of that bill should have been welcomed by us,' he said."

Biographer John Judis tells me that Buckley "did specifically say that he was wrong," and gave as a reason for his segregationist views his southern mother and winters in South Carolina. An exchange of e-mail with Michael Kinsley of Slate in 2001 shows Buckley parsing his folly. Buckley said of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, "I'd have voted against the bill, but if it were out there today, I'd vote for it. . . . I'd vote with trepidation, however, for the obvious reason that successful results cannot necessarily legitimize the means by which they were brought about."

I doubt if these second thoughts come anywhere close to the order of hand-wringing Goldberg has in mind for Ayers and Dohrn. Not that a comparison should be forced. Ayers and Dohrn opposed a war that deserved opposing, but did so egregiously, violently, and ineffectually. To whom should they apologize -- the members of the nonviolent but equally ineffectual resistance whose name they sullied by association? Buckley supported the greatest institutional evil of 20th century America, however only with words and money. To whom should he apologize -- God? The truth is, Americans aren't much for apologizing -- in large part, I'll surmise, because the demand for an apology is so often so patently political. What we do instead is move on, and in the end the obit writers kick us around just as little or as much as they want to. Buckley took a fair number of odious positions in his life, but eulogists are reminding us he was fervent and nonpartisan in friendship. In the end the pleasure of his company won out and the baggage of segregation cost him nothing at all.

The Tribune editorial on Buckley acknowledged his warts but framed them oddly, allowing that "like any long-lived commentator, Buckley took positions that today are hard to excuse, such as his indulgence of Southern segregation in the 1950s, his defense of Joseph McCarthy and his proposal, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, that the infected be required to get tattooed to alert potential sexual partners."  Buckley was 82 when he died, but his long life had nothing to do with his support of McCarthy and Jim Crow -- those were positions he took when he was a young man making his presence felt. The editorial insulted all long-lived commentators who never did anything of the sort.

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