A Valediction for the Prince of Sophists (William F. Buckley, Jr. 1925-2008)

The Other Katherine Harris

by The Other Katherine Harris
Featured writer
Dandelion Salad

The Other Katherine Harris’s blog
Feb. 27, 2008

“A mind,” as the saying goes, “is a terrible thing to waste.” Damn shame about Bill Buckley’s. Imagine the good he might have done, given worthier aims than enlarging fortunes like his family’s, reviving social restrictions that even his Catholic church considered shopworn by the 1960s and generally stopping the march of history dead in its tracks.

Even at 16, my age when The Firing Line debuted in 1966, I knew his politics were repugnant. Besides defending the increasingly bloody American misadventure in Vietnam and, of course, anything big business and theocrats wanted, he was a foe of the civil rights movement and similarly held that students were too uppity. By then, the world had seen only a few campus sit-ins and minor disruptions, but even this was too much for Buckley, who thought the root of the problem was simply lack of adult discipline. On one of his earliest shows, the actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel countered, “Do you really think we live in… an age where… a parent can obstinately cling to the belief that the values of today are not substantially different from the values of yesterday?” “But the parents are right,” Buckley retorted, to which Bikel laughed, “I knew that you would say that.”

There was seldom a scrap of doubt about what he’d say on any subject. The fun part was how cleverly he often said it. In both the elegance of his demeanor and his choice of words – selected with evident gusto from one of the best-furnished toyboxes around – he’d have been at home in a Noel Coward play, with only a few famous lapses (as when he threatened to punch Gore Vidal for calling him a crypto-fascist).

I’d love to know what Vidal is thinking today, having now outlived the last of his three sparring partners, the others being Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. It was a delight to observe their verbal pummelings – all well within bounds of civility, compared to today’s lying, strident body-slams.

Of course the Fairness Doctrine still applied in those days. Nobody got away with outright falsehood, besides which television wasn’t yet a bastion of anti-intellectualism. It actually brought us live theatre throughout my childhood; Burton played Hamlet in our living rooms and the hosts of talk shows were almost uniformly erudite, the likes of Steve Allen and Dick Cavett.

Buckley set out to match or exceed their class, at a time when conservatism had no such spokesman and, in seeking to legitimize the Robber Barons’ perspective, he presented his opposing views gracefully alongside those of people whom we honestly wanted to watch (John Kenneth Galbraith, David Susskind, Dick Gregory, Hugh Hefner, David Merrick, Dore Schary, Pierre Salinger, Daniel Moynihan, anti-Vietnam activist David Dellinger, James Hoffa, the then-young Senator Al Gore and even Black Panther Huey Newton and counterculture stars Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg). Have a look at some of these program summaries. Only occasionally was his guest a fellow-Republican, until the later years, so this was a brilliant means of worming into wider consciousness, without seeming to be a public menace.

Among those who’ve done our country such vast damage, Buckley was certainly one of the most influential, but not one of the absolute worst. The New Republic was higher-toned before his 1990 retirement, and he had sense enough to favor decriminalizing drugs and to admit failure in Iraq and want us out in 2006.

If we get do-overs, I hope next time he’ll be just as smart and amusing, but on the people’s side.

4 thoughts on “A Valediction for the Prince of Sophists (William F. Buckley, Jr. 1925-2008)

  1. Buckley had his famous beef with Yale, and reportedly once said he’d rather be governed by the first 20 people in the Boston phone book than by anyone educated at Harvard. So why the devotion to words and locutions that were indecipherable to the vast majority of people in all the phone books in the land?

  2. Thank you for these comments and I’ve no argument with them — other than to point out that the Brit dialect was legit. (He learned English as a child in England; it was his third language, after Spanish and French.)

    I offered these thoughts only in the way of memoir, and in sadness that such a smart person became somehow so intellectually perverted. Most of them are dullards, as we know.

  3. Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky wipes the floor with Buckley the brain-dead bully:



    Buckly was INTOLERABLE. What an annoying, cloying, fake anglophilic accent. Where did WtF Buckley get that preposterous pompous, pedantic, Peripatetical postulation of pure poppycock.

    It would have all been a comical caricature had we not known what we know now: theat his ‘conservativsm’ almost nuked the world under raygun, and now lays waste to the middle east, with the ‘conservative’ consequences to our economy in the multiple trillions.

  4. There is no redeeming value to WtF Buckley, pretentious vocabulary or not.
    Glad he’s dead. Too bad his hideous and destructive ideas and efforts didn’t die with him.

    Perhaps all those infected with his ‘conservatism’ will just have to die out as well for people to be finally rid of the paranoid red-state raygun disease of capitalist hegemony with its tool of cultist christianity.

    There was a good soul emerging in grass-roots america– once.
    It was born of the common people from the pain of pennilessness and abuse by capitalist industrialism.

    But selfish, xenophobic, arrogant, militaristic, bigoted, elitism of the likes of Buckley drove the heart from the heartland and addicted the populace to greed, god, and guns.

    It will be many decades before the pandemic, irrational, anti-progressive delusions of conservatism’s adherents are finally digested through the compost-heap of bad ideas, after corroding like toxic waste along with jim crow, fascism, stalinism, maoism, totalitarianism and evangelical religion.

    The 20th century forced all kinds of ill-conceived notions of societies on otherwise normal folk, but somehow it obliterated and defamed much of anything of value achieved.

    The damage wrought by the addictive ideas so fanatically disseminated by this elitist, arrogant, prep-school bourgeois buffoon is vast, incalculable, and permanent.

    Whatever Buckley felt he was fighting against (the counter culture? The New Deal? Murals commissioned for the WPA? Who even knows anymore) His crusade seems to have created complete mayhem for progress.

    Noam reminds us that things are now profoundly less conservative in all ways than they were in, say the 1950’s. But we since had a flowering of humanism, a short burst of cooperative concepts.

    Anyone who had the good fortune to born into that single summer of idealism has since experienced massive disillusionment at it’s evaporation.

    The success by conservatives in completely obliterating an exciting momentum is bewildering. We could have fixed everything by now if those sniveling shysters hadn’t shown up flyin’ their fifties-flag way higher than any freakflag.

    Conservatism is as pernicious as Ozone-eating flourocarbons—one molecule of the addictive drug of religious conservatism can destroy a hundred beneficial bits of baseline humanism with which we supposedly have been born.

    It is far easier, it seems, to switch the hard-wires of the human brain into a selfish, hostile, militaristic social-darwinist, religious-fnantical greed-mongering state, than it is to massage the mind to promote peace, justice, compassion and creativity for the peace and good and progress of all.

    What conservatism apparently set out to destroy were the very ideals that would have forestalled much of what went wrong in the immoral and anti-humanistic America of the 1980’s, particularly the anti-environmentalism of the era which grows worse ever since.

    Conservatism is a pernicious pathogen of putrid principles with which we will likely forever now continue to contend.

    The ‘activism’ manifested by these ‘conservatives’ with their lock-step mega-church election-twisting, anti-science militancy was a far more ‘effective’ force than any counter-culture ever generated by idealists.

    The conservative miscreants employed their biblical baloney to sucker whole factions of former farmers and workers into becoming incurable fanatics who vote and legislate against their own best interests, & those of their environment, all to benefit the gloating elite at the expense of the rest.

    Conservatism suckered them all, and they still fail to see it. Once an addict, always an addict, a principle which applies to manipulative corporate cultism as surely as it does cocaine.

    Likely the USA will have to go through another depression to come to their humanistic senses, and only then will humbled popular opinion promote a sense of common good for a common cause invested with the common ideals of compassion, humanism and health.

    Call that liberalism, socialism or whatever, but ‘conservatism’ as defined by Buckley, Raygun, Bush, and their wayward stepchild Paul, was culturally the worst and most irresponsible bunch of bunk anyone could have injected/infected into a ‘free’ society.

    The seeds of altruistic attitudes appear to be planted in the hearts of most humans, but It takes work and beneficent vision to act on empathy and to effect the progressive, humanitarian change for the genuine good of all.

    It takes only weakness to fall into a trap of greed, paranoia and bigotry and god as so verbosely espoused by WtF Buckley.

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