The death of Bill Buckley; Mr. Bush’s faint praise…

Some thoughts on the death of Bill Buckley, founder of the National Review, who died last week, aged 82.

I suppose most of us knew him through the long-running TV program “Firing Line”, moderated by Michael Kinsley, but presided over by our Bill. The best of the “Firing Line” debates pitted his (more or less reliably) conservative views, his facilities with language, his “have at thee” delight in debating scraps, and his strong drive to emerge victorious –which he often did– against allcomers.

And he educated everybody about the conservative end of that worldview spectrum that is part of everybody’s inner life. And that I think may have been his great service to our nation.

He took on everybody, and even though there were some fierce battles, and sharp elbows, and sometimes a loss of Buckley cool (in which he embarrassed himself, but went on to do better), –for all the contention the man –could we say, “gentleman”?– was essentially civilized and regarded even his extreme-opposites on the political spectrum with respect and even with real friendship. (For example, I gather that this was very much the case with Norman Mailer, who also left us a short while ago.)

I didn’t know a lot about Bill Buckley’s background, so I have been reading a lot of obituaries in the last few days. It’s been quite an education –the columns, the lines, and in between them.

They say of journalism that it is the first draft of history –a little grandiose perhaps, but we know what they mean. Listening to the Buckley tributes, the vast majority of which came from the right, I have come up with a concommitant: “Obituary is the first draft of hagiography.”

[I recently quoted Maurice “Hunting Cap” O’Connell –a famous and much admired Irish figure of the 18th C., a fiercely independent Kerryman (and brother of Eileen of “The Lament for Art O’Leary”*).
(His nickname was derived from the fact that he always wore a hunting cap “rather than pay the gentleman’s hat tax to the Crown, just another of the myriad demeaning Penal Laws” that the Irish were subjected to.)
Maurice was idolized for his record of outwitting and outsmarting the occupying Brits, but when it came to his obituary and related matters, he insisted on composing and carving his own headstone, “lest it be too fulsome.”]
[*For anyone interested, the full story can be found in my introduction to “Lament for Art O’Leary.” from The Stone Street Press]

The “too-fulsome” phrase came into my mind on reading the many of the rightwing tributes for Bill Buckley.
The rightwing has become so doctrinaire that it will slice anybody up who veers slightly from the dogma. Look at poor John McCain –every talkshow hack has been hacking away at him. I heard somebody on ABC radio last night say it would be better for the conservatives if McCain lost the election in 2008, because “the four years of pain” would do them good, would bring them together, ready for a 2012 victory. He was pointing to Ford’s loss to Carter in 1976 as being what “guaranteed” Reagan’s victory in 1980.

The rightwing tributes to Bill –it began to dawn on me– were fulsome indeed, but not quite….full.

Let’s start with our commander-in-chief.

Mr. Bush came up with a few words about Bill : President Bush called Buckley a great political thinker, wit, author and leader. “He influenced a lot of people, including me,” the president said. “He captured the imagination of a lot of people.” What’s that arome I’m getting? Why, I do believe it’s the distinct whiff of generic Bush “our hearts go out” boilerplate.
And those words: not too fulsome. Indeed, hardly fulsome at all. What’s going ON here?

An attached CBS comment explains: “Buckley… made no secret of his distaste for at least some of Bush’s policies. In a 2006 interview with CBS, he called the Iraq war a failure.
“If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced, it would be expected that he would retire or resign,” Buckley said at the time.

What was going ON was something that I had missed completely when it happened two years ago –Bill Buckley pronouncing on the Failure of the Iraq War.
I’m going to quote you exactly what Buckley said about The War, and about Bush. No wonder Bush was cool to him. It stunned me, I will tell you. I wonder if you agree.

The interview piece was aired on Bloomberg Television on the occasion of BB’s 80th birthday

(By Heidi Przybyla and Judy Woodruff)

March 31 (Bloomberg) — William F. Buckley Jr., the longtime conservative writer and leader, said George W. Bush’s presidency will be judged entirely by the outcome of a war in Iraq that is now a failure.

“Mr. Bush is in the hands of a fortune that will be unremitting on the point of Iraq,” Buckley said in an interview that will air on Bloomberg Television this weekend. “If he’d invented the Bill of Rights it wouldn’t get him out of his jam.”

Buckley said he doesn’t have a formula for getting out of Iraq, though he said “it’s important that we acknowledge in the inner councils of state that it (the war) has failed, so that we should look for opportunities to cope with that failure.”

The 80-year-old Buckley is among a handful of prominent conservatives who are criticizing the war. Asked who is to blame for what he deems a failure, Buckley said, “the president,” adding that “he doesn’t hesitate to accept responsibility.”

Buckley called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a longtime friend, “a failed executor” of the war. And Vice President Dick Cheney “was flatly misled,” Buckley said. “He believed the business about the weapons of mass destruction.”

Buckley, often called the father of contemporary conservatism in America, articulated his beliefs in National Review magazine, which he founded in 1955. His conservatism calls for small government, low taxes and a strong defense. Both Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater said they got their inspiration from the magazine.

In the interview, Buckley criticized the so-called neo- conservatives who enthusiastically embraced the Iraq invasion and the spreading of American values around the world.

“The neoconservative hubris, which sort of assigns to America some kind of geo-strategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country,” Buckley said.

While praising Bush as “really a conservative,” he was critical of the president for allowing expansion of the federal government and never vetoing a spending bill.

The president’s “concern has been so completely on the international scope that he can be said to have neglected conservatism” on the fiscal level, Buckley said.

I have some more to say on the subject, but I will post now, and come back to Part Two later.

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