May 22 • 07:02 PM

Buckley's shoes are hard to fill

March 19, 2008
Last month William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism, passed on at the age of 82. Although I did not share his conservative philosophy I came to appreciate his erudite challenge to liberalism which he presented in The National Review and on Firing Line. More than once his use of language sent me to the dictionary as his writing forced mine to improve. He was committed to civil discourse that showed little appetite for the shrillness that plagues today's political debate.

With Buckley gone we are left with the anti-intellectual rhetoric of talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the inane shrieking of Ann Coulter to fill the void of the sophisticated discourse which gave birth to the political conservatism that led to the founding of Young Americans For Freedom, which in turn gave it Barry Goldwater and later laid the groundwork for Ronald Reagan.

Though it cost him readers Buckley disavowed the John Birch Society along with anti-Semites who poisoned the conservative cause. In the mid-1950s Buckley defended Senator Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist demagogue, and although he never quite recanted this mistake Buckley's friendships cut across political lines to embrace both liberals and conservatives alike.

Buckley never believed that political views defined the essential person. As a result his many friendships crossed political lines and despite his uncompromising beliefs Mr. Buckley was always committed to a civil discourse which always challenged the thinking of those who engaged him. For this reason alone he will be remembered.

Buckley knew that politics, above all, was the realm of ideas and not tactics and power. With Buckley's passing there is one less leader regarded with respect and affection in that sprawling coalition that is the conservative movement today. As Evan Thomas in Newsweek wrote, "the loss to conservatism and America is real" and "his departure leaves an unfulfilled spot where wit and joy once stood."

On Firing Line, Buckley offered a level of debate which few programs were capable of delivering. This was public television's gift to America and I regret to say PBS has declined in recent years to a shadow of its former self. Numerous administrations over the years have tried to marginalize PBS to the point where it no longer seems as relevant as it once was.

With the rise of cable television many of the programs which used to be a staple of PBS have virtually been replaced and unless PBS finds other program sources to make up for those which have been lost it is perhaps time to conclude that the financial resources for PBS should be better directed to National Public Radio, which seems better able to offer a much more well-rounded perspective on news and public affairs.

I think Buckley would have been saddened with the decline of public television which seems mired in endless donor infomercials and occasional warmed over specials interrupted by twenty minute appeals for money. Where is Firing Line when we need it?

Buckley's style was unique. He spoke "in languid sentences, adorned with erudite allusions and polysyllabic flourishes" geared to furthering the purpose of his National Review which, in his words, was to stand "athwart history, yelling, Stop!"

Buckley was never mean-spirited in his critiques of the liberal establishment. He did enjoy baiting them however, and in his first book 'God And Man At Yale' he took aim not only at his alma mater but at the

academic elite in general with a rapier like wit present day conservative critics seem incapable of emulating.

In his later years it became clear Buckley was disillusioned with the direction the conservative movement was taking, including the direction the Bush administration was taking, and even said publicly, "that if America were a parliamentary system, Mr. Bush would have resigned."

The conservative movement which Buckley founded is showing signs of intellectual exhaustion and one wonders, in the post Bush-Cheney years, how Buckley's original design will fair. It is clear "the movement has never needed a new William F. Buckley more than it does today."

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