This is strong stuff that might make even a tea party advocate blush, but it is a reminder in the age of Obama that to choose conservatism is stand athwart history as it has unfolded, to choose the prerogatives of the individual over the gravitational pull of a collective mindset, a mindset that inevitably narrows the corridors of freedom and opportunity by aggregating disproportionate power to the state.
This being said, one cannot take this column in isolation. Buckley also directed his ire toward the private sphere as well, and this is equally relevant given the excesses to which Wall Street and Corporate America have been prone in recent years. In his publisher’s statement upon the launch of National Review, Buckley reminded readers that:
Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.
This is a vast collection – some 600 pages with a table of contents seemingly as long as some books. Much of the content focuses on the issues of the given day – presidential elections, political or cultural events, glosses on this or that personality or friend. We revisit Buckley’s tributes to Grace Kelly, Malcolm Muggeridge, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer and John Dos Passos, not to mention his long-time adversary and friend John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife, whose death left Buckley so bereft. There are other efforts worth noting – his skewering of the leftists who sought to kill National Review in the cradle, Reflections on the Failure of National Review to Live Up to Liberal Expectations, his attempts to defend his faith in an age of secular cynicism, and his love of classical music and sailing.
Indeed, this “omnibus,” to use the editors’ phrase, is a larger than any collection Buckley himself ever put into print. Which leads me to my one criticism — I would not have minded a few less of his workmanlike columns, and the inclusion of a few more of his most memorable pieces – essays on Whittaker Chambers, Lourdes, Gore Vidal and Murray Kempton come to mind.
But, one must concede there is methodology behind this choice: think of Athwart History not as a reader, but the third in a series that includes Miles Gone By, a collection of personal essays and remembrances, and speeches. It is evident that the editors wanted to memorialize work that might otherwise disappear from view – and to reprint only his best writings would have been an act of repetition, so much of this work having already appeared in earlier books. And so Kimball and Bridges sought to balance objectives, I suspect, wanting to unearth some of Buckley’s less remembered but still highly readable pieces while also doing justice to his style and history by including a few of his trenchant and memorable essays.
Whatever the merits of this approach, this collection announces what is obvious to any student of modern politics: Buckley made conservatism a formidable political and intellectual force in part through intellect and in large measure through sheer force of personality and faith. This comes through in his writings, of course, but to read Buckley profitably requires a committed and thoughtful mind — of which, I fear, there are fewer and fewer in our superficial age of television and instant communication.
But if a picture is worth a few hundred thousand words, let us turn, then, finally, to the beginning of the book, the cover, to see the man in full. The photo selected is perfect – Chairman Bill on his sailboat, an individual fully alive and undaunted by all the variations and challenges of life. Even those unfamiliar with Buckley or the movement he mobilized and inspired will be curious, I suspect, about the man behind the smile, for the face and smile alone tell us profound things: that the individual lives, that living joyfully and faithfully carries rewards greater than all the academic and policy tomes of our time. Ideas can and should be discussed with respect and awe for our intellectual patrimony, but dour pessimism will never inspire anyone to turn back those forces ever gnawing at the independent mind and the individual soul.
Bill Buckley served this nation with unique distinction, honor and grace for over a half century. He is sorely missed for reasons both personal and public. But any thoughtful person committed to high ideas and the serious purposes to which discourse can be put should confer with him by reading Athwart History or any other of his substantial collections. You can also look for a brief biography by Lee Edwards, William F. Buckley Jr., The Maker of a Movement, and a collection of interviews recently compiled by William Meehan, which confirm the staying power of the causes for which Bill Buckley labored.
Buckley wrote more than 50 years ago in an article that gave this book its title:
“…we offer, besides ourselves, a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parisitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D.s in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.”
Buckley has been gone several years now, and the void is noticeable; for many conservatives, he still remains the hottest thing in town.
George Shadroui is the author of Crossing Swords: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Left.
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