The Gadfly Bytes --
March 11, 2008
My Encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr.
With Some Reflections on His Legacy.
“The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman.”
Shakespeare, King Lear
Some forty years ago, I interviewed the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
although I had to bribe him to agree.
But it wasn’t so bad. I
bribed him with a song – or more precisely, with a
couple of Bach lute pieces. Buckley was renowned as a Bach
At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, and I
also hosted a talk show at a local AM radio station, KSXX. I was a
rare liberal among a solid roster of right-wingers.
When word got out that Buckley was in Utah to enjoy “the greatest snow
on earth,” the right-wingers at the station fell over themselves trying
to grab an interview with the great man. No dice, they were told,
Buckley was in-state for a ski vacation, and he took his vacations very
My weekends were also spent on the Wasatch Mountain slopes, and I
subsidized this expensive pastime by playing classical guitar weekends
at the Alta Lodge. (“It was a gas,” as we used to say, whereby I got to
jam with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and meet such notables as
John Lindsey and Senator John Glenn. But I digress).
So with no hope of meeting, much less interviewing, Mr. Buckley, I did
my usual Sunday gig at the Lodge including, as always, a few Bach lute
pieces. Afterward, an elegant lady approached and said, “Oh, that was
simply mahhvelous! If only my husband were here to listen to you.
You will be here tomorrow, will you not?”
“Regretfully, Mrs. Buckley, I don’t play on Mondays.”
Somewhat surprised that I recognized her, she replied, “Oh I’m so sorry
he can’t hear you.”
Seizing an opportunity, I added, “but I will happily make an
exception and drive up later this week for a special performance, if Mr.
Buckley will consent to an interview.”
She promised to convey the offer to her husband.
The next day, I received a phone call from Buckley’s traveling “Go-Fer:”
“Mr. Partridge,” he said, “I hear that you play a mean classical
guitar!” Whereupon the deal was made.
If J. S. Bach didn’t close the sale for me, there was an added
incentive. In Utah at the time, most self-identified conservatives, and
particularly those who called in to KSXX, identified “conservatism” with
the paranoid rants of the John Birch Society and its founder, Joseph
Welch. Buckley and Welch detested each other. When I told Mrs. B. that I
wanted to separate her husband’s “conservatism” from that of the
crazies, she also conveyed that intention to Buckley, and he apparently
took the bait.
I opened the interview with the promised topic: “Many people in Utah,” I
said, “equate ‘conservatism’ with the position of the John Birch
After all these years, I vividly remember his reply: “with all due
respect, and I do have that respect, I find it difficult to
Typical Buckley: flattery followed immediately by a put-down.
My purpose was not to engage in a debate but rather to conduct an
interview, and in particular to disassociate Buckley’s conservatism from
John Birchite paranoia. He was more than willing to do so, for he was
genuinely embarrassed by the ravings of radical, soi-dissant
“conservatives” such as JBS founder, Joseph Welch.
For my part, I confess to a cowardly disinclination to tangle with this
world-class debater. At one point, as he began to expound on one of his
outlandish political opinions, I said “well, I suppose that we might go
into that...” With his trade-mark raised eyebrows and mischievous grin,
he finished my sentence: “... if you wanted to.”
I found Bill Buckley in person to be the same suave, witty and charming
person that he appeared to be on his long-running PBS “Firing Line”
series. I understood immediately how he was fully capable of enduring
friendships with his ideological opposites such as historian Arthur
Schlesinger, Jr. and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Buckley’s suite
at the Alta Lodge glowed with humor and hospitality. He was, in a
word, instantly likeable and, to a person with contrary political
On reflection, to this liberal there was much to “disarm.” In the
inaugural issue of his publication, National Review, he wrote
that the purpose of the magazine, and of the conservative movement, was
to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop!”
A hopeless enterprise, of course. History stops for no one, not even for
Bill Buckley and all the accumulated wealth and power of his
conservative allies. Nevertheless, Buckley is on record for trying to stop
the humiliation and downfall of Senator Joe McCarthy, as well as to halt
feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism, desegregation and the civil
rights movement. Regarding the latter, he argued that the property
rights of the discriminating owners of motels and restaurants were
sacrosanct. Furthermore, he believed that blacks (and he later added
“poor whites”) were “not ready” to participate in self-government. It
appears not to have occurred to him that if they were not, then the state had an
obligation to educate these unfortunates to the required level of
competence. To his credit, by the mid-60s, Buckley renounced his earlier
racism and came to admire Martin Luther King, Jr.
Buckley endorsed the conservatism of Edmund Burke –
Like Burke, he regarded society as “a partnership in every virtue and in
all perfection... Each contract of each particular state is but a clause
in the great primaeval contract of eternal society....” Eloquence aside,
it comes to this: tradition – woven into a complex fabric of
tried and true mores and institutions – is not to be trifled with, any
more than a complex instrument should be taken apart by an ignorant
What Buckley failed to appreciate was (1) that “traditions” are varied
and contrary, and that it is the task of each generation to choose among
them, (2) that there are liberal traditions, notably the
innovations of the founders of our republic, which have become
established as our national traditions. Thus the civil rights movement
of the sixties was not a dismantling of tradition; rather, it was a
fulfillment thereof. And finally, (3) respect for established traditions
does not mean that one must “stand athwart history, yelling Stop!”
As Edmund Burke himself correctly observed, “a State without the means
of some change is without the means of its conservation,” and also, “we
must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of
Buckley was the Thomas Aquinas of conservatism. Like “the Angelic
Doctor,” he employed formidable erudition and rhetoric to weave an
elegant logical structure on the foundation of a few unquestioned
dogmas. Among them:
Edmund Burke’s affirmation of the sanctity of established traditions.
“Market absolutism:” an unregulated marketplace of self-serving
“utility maximizers” will, in almost all circumstances, yield better
results than the deliberations of public policy-makers.
Accordingly, “government is not the solution, government is the
problem.” (Ronald Reagan). Taxation for any purpose other than the
protection of life, liberty and property, is theft.
Poverty is a sin and not the result of economic injustice. People
are poor because they choose to be. Welfare assistance only
encourages indolence. There are no “victims of society.”
wealth of the privileged few “trickles down” to benefit the masses.
Only these privileged, the trustees and protectors of received
“culture” and “traditions,” are fit to rule.
carefully “cultivated” by an elite mass media and an official
“Ministry of Truth,” the masses have a boundless capacity to
tolerate their political and economic oppression. Those workers who
create and sustain the wealth of people like William Buckley
have no claim on that wealth and no right to share it fairly with the owners of the capital that is equally essential
to the production of that wealth.
who disagree with the above precepts are “communists” (or, at the
very least, “socialists”) who, as such, are enemies of the state
whose ideas must be suppressed and whose citizen rights must be
dogmas amount to what Friedrich Nietzsche called a
morality” – an ethos devised and functioning to rationalize and
secure the status of wealth and power in society. In this regard,
Buckley's conservatism is similar to the Calvinist doctrine of wealth as
the sign of divine grace, the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and
Carnegie's and Rockefeller's "Social Darwinism." (This is not to say
that Buckley was a “Nietzschean” – he most emphatically was not. But the
concept that class privilege generates a justifying moral theory, an idea
shared by Machiavelli, Marx, and virtually all sociologists, applies in this case).
All of these articles of faith can be readily demonstrated to be false,
immoral, or at best half-truths lending credence to abominable falsehoods.
And with the dissolution of these dogmatic foundations, the entire
eloquent logical structure of “conservatism” collapses in a heap,
reducing the Bucklian rhetoric to sound and fury, signifying nothing. (I
cannot, in this space, justify these bold
assertions. However, I can refer you to my almost completed book that
attempts that justification:
Conscience of a
Progressive – still in search of a publisher, by the
Buckley’s conservatism contains within itself the seeds of its own
destruction, and Buckley lived long enough to see the germination of
those seeds. Despite the awesome propaganda mill of the corporate
mass media, ordinary American citizens are finally beginning to
understand full-well that they have been had. They are losing their
jobs, their homes, their health care, and their pensions, while the cost
of essentials such as food, home heating and transportation fuel rise.
They can no longer afford to send their children to college to obtain
the skills necessary sustain a tolerable standard of living. Instead,
many of those children are forced to join the military to fight and die
in imperialistic foreign wars. The citizens’ privacy and civil rights
are being dismantled along with the Constitution that once secured them.
After years of GOP fiscal policy of “borrow and spend,” the U.S. economy
is on the brink of collapse, with nothing left in the federal treasury
with which to effect a rescue. At long last, the public is beginning to
realize that with the privatization of elections and with it the use of
unverifiable “black-box” voting machines, the right to vote is no longer
a reliable instrument of political change and thus that the government
is out of their control – it no longer “governs with the consent of the
governed,” as demanded by the founding Declaration of the American
The radical change that William F. Buckley Jr. resisted throughout his
imminent, brought on by the very success of the conservatism that he
It remains to be seen how the ruling conservative elites will respond to
the magma of public discontent that is rising beneath their feet.
We can, at the very least, be confident of the validity of John F.
Kennedy’s warning: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will
make violent revolution inevitable.”
Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge