Wednesday, March 5, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr., R I P

I have the day off of work today, so I am in the midst of trying to accomplish several tasks at my desk, tasks which I ought not have let myself get so far underneath in recent days, and in some cases weeks. There are days in which I lack the spirit or energy to sit at my desk very long. I need to jar myself out of that mode, or else the reasons for my lack of spirit these days will not change. Today, as I say, I have had the day to myself, which helps; my productivity has also been helped by the right music on the CD player, and some decent coffee.

One of my more pressing projects is the newsletter for the Society of Saint Polycarp. The new issue, happily, is taking form. Yet I need a little break, so perhaps it is a good time to share a thought or two upon the death of one of the great thinkers and gentlemen of the second half of the twentieth century, William Buckley. I gave up political partisanship a long time ago. It decreased in me as my theological nature increased. I hope these, then, are not taken as politically biased comments. Buckley's contributions to our culture are many, and most of them go beyond the purely political.

In recent days I have reviewed his bibliography, and one of the things that I realize when I look at it is that I have only read about one third of his books. Aside from his regular column, and ocassional anthologies he edited, he wrote some fifty five books. It is a little surprising to see that twenty of them are works of fiction, of which I have read one. In recent years I have read his spiritual autobiography, Nearer My God; a collection of his speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things; and his literary autobiography, Miles Gone By. Back in the days when I was a much more intense political reader, I immersed myself in some of his collected essays and columns, such as Right Reason, along with an invaluable collection of essays he edited with Charles Kesler, Keeping the Tablets, which includes essays by other great writers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Sowell, and Whittaker Chambers. Of primary importance will always be Buckley's foundational works, books such as Up From Liberalism, and the book he wrote against his own alma mater right after he graduated, God and Man at Yale. To write a book in critique of one's school, now there's a thought. Once in a while he would write a book meant to give a sort of window into his life at the moment, such as he did in the early 80s with Overdrive. I think I would perhaps recommend Overdrive as a good introduction to his writings. It gives the reader an interesting account of a week in the life of the leader of the modern Conservative Movement at perhaps its, and his, height.

Buckley was a consumate writer. He claimed at one point not to like writing, that it was hard work. I take him at his word, yet I find neither claim easy to believe, considering his constant high level of production. Along with his constant writing, he had a long running television interview program, "The Firing Line." I saw a number of those shows in my time, but since it for the most part predated my adulthood, I have yet to see many of those episodes. I don't know if they have been recorded on DVD, but if so, I sure would be interested in viewing them. (Many of those interviews are available in a very readable format in a book titled, On the Firing Line: The Public Life of Our Public Figures.) He also hosted ocassional debates. These were real, hard hitting, yet gentlemanly, debates, between three or four person teams on each side, debating major issues of the day.

Along with all of these professional activities, he lived a very rich life; I don't mean rich in terms of mere material wealth, though he had this, but rather a culturally rich life. William Buckley loved life, and seized every moment to live a life rich and uplifting for himself and those around him. He flew the Concord jet regularly, took up sailing, and wrote about it, and played the harpsichord. He had a special love of J. S. Bach. There might never be a greater lover of Bach, at least not a Roman Catholic one, after Buckley. For all of his high polyglot culture (English was his third language, as a young boy he first knew only Spanish, and then French), he at times revealed aspects of his personality which display an almost surprising Americanness, like his deep love of peanut butter, or his addiction to the TV show, "All In the Family."

William Buckley's life cannot be summed up in a brief comment, but I would like to reflect that of all the admirable aspects of his public life, the one I personally find most notable and endearing, and worthy of special consideration in a twenty first century America so in need of it, is his capacity for combining passion for his subject with genuine warmth and friendship. His ability to not merely "be friendly," but to truly be friends with so many of his opponents, is a testament to the sort of Christian heart so lacking in American public life today. I even see a lack of it in the Church at times. There are many examples of this dimension of Buckley's personality. One from later in his life is his relationship with the TV interviewer Charlie Rose. Another from an earlier period is his friendship with economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Another that comes to mind is his affection for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Is it possible to fight passionately for what one believes, and yet be a gentleman, with a loving heart? Once in a while, even in modern America, we are graced with examples of just this, and Buckley was one of the great gentlemen of letters of his day.

Another reason Buckley kept my admiration even as my particular political interest was replaced by my "Beatrice," Theology, is that Buckley is in fact a great witness to intelligent traditionalist lay Christianity. He had a deep love of Christ in the Eucharist, and his love of the Latin Mass remained steadfast, even as he had to witness the Latin Mass recede into the distant background of the modern Church. In his book, Nearer My God, which I won't try to quote verbatim, since I don't have the book in front of me, there is a passage in which he wonders at why the New Order of the Mass won't even allow for the priest to give him communion (a most individual and private part of the liturgy) with the old Latin formula. It seems that even in the Church, some things are malum prohibitum, yet non malum in se. In Overdrive he has this to say,

"For many years I have pronounced to myself the traditional words, no longer recited by the priest when placing the host on the tongue of each communicant. He used to say, and now I say it for him, 'Corpus Domini nostri Iesu Christi, custodiat animam tuam, in vitam aeternam, amen.' May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ safeguard your soul through life everlasting, amen. I long since concluded that no other verbal sequence comes as close as this in documenting human equality. The same words, for prince or for pauper; reminding us, young and old, healthy and sick, rich and poor, of our common dependence on our Maker."

I find such "common dependence" to be a beautiful eucharistic theme. And I find the love of the Latin tradition of the Church on the part of a humble layman like this to be deeply inspiring and admirable.

Buckley still holds my interest as a writer, a thinker, and a key witness to his time. I look forward to his soon to be published book on Barry Goldwater, and I lament that he only seems to have been partially through writing a book on Ronald Reagan when his eventful and faithful sojourn in this world came to an end. Appropriately, he was found in his study, at his desk.


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Christina said...

Thank you for your tribute. The mean IQ of our nation took a dive on the day we lost William F. Buckley, Jr.