Learning civil discourse from William F. Buckley and my dad

As part of the Patheos series on people to whom we’re thankful for having shaped our spiritual selves, I offer this obituary I wrote for William F. Buckley in 2008. It’s as much about my dad as it is about him and I include them both in that category. It’s also interesting to reread my comments on civil political debate four years later.

As I write about William F. Buckley, I can’t help thinking of my dad. They were alike in many ways, and my father introduced me to him, through the TV screen. I once told Buckley that he’d played a huge role in the formation of my political thinking — as I’d been watching Firing Line since it appeared on PBS when I was 9 years old — and he said, “Well, that’s a frightening thought.” Of course, it was a frightening thought. Why was a 9-year-old watching a political debate show led by this devout intellectual with the vocabulary of a… well… the vocabulary typical of no one else? Because of my dad. My atheist dad.

My father may have been against religion, but his ethical example, his dignity, and his love and respect for nature and his fellow man were spiritual practices if ever I’ve seen them. I know I got part of whatever religious core I have though him. And he and the author of God & Man at Yale shared many values.

Bill Buckley is best known for starting the magazine National Review, and, largely through that publication, for leading a revitalization of conservative politics in America. But there has always been a tension within conservatism between what Buckley represented and what at one time called itself the “Know Nothings” — an anti-intellectual, often anti-immigrant, populism.

The conservatism William F. Buckley stood for was a heartfelt belief in individual liberty, collective responsibility and a healthy respect for traditions. I disagreed with him some then, do so much more now, but I’ve always admired his approach. His was not a politics of fear. It was a thoughtful and a decent politics. One that he was more than happy to defend against reasonable opponents.

Buckley’s Firing Line was no relative of the modern split screen scream-fest, with surrogates of Left and Right speaking from memorized talking points, bullying their way to dominate the audio feed. On Firing Line, Buckley maintained a level of politeness that approached serenity. You finished watching an episode feeling edified, rather than feeling bolstered in an already-fixed position.

And Buckley’s politeness was not the false platitude of a politician’s “my esteemed colleague” — he didn’t hesitate to let you know if he thought your idea was idiotic, but he never attacked your character. Your idea might be stupid, you might even be stupid in his eyes, but you weren’t evil. And it must be said: he clearly was having fun.

I’ve chosen a few examples from Firing Line and other shows and you can see them on the next page. But here’s one example, part of a remarkable 1969 Firing Line debate between William F. Buckley and Noam Chomsky on the global military role of America, specifically the appropriateness of intervention:

One of Buckley’s trademarks was the twinkle in his eye. If there is one thing it might be fair for the Left to hate about Buckley, it is that twinkle. In his writing, his magazine, his TV show and in his person, Buckley made conservatism palatable by making it polite, and above all, friendly. Bill Buckley was playful.

Buckley, and of course my former debating team captain father, helped shape this ideal in me, which I’ve carried throughout my life. Whether a person is Left, Right or other, whether I agree or disagree with them, I expect discourse to be civil; and if it is not, I’m just not that interested.

Son of an oil tycoon, Buckley, while no doubt an elitist, held the old-fashioned notion that the elite have responsibilities, that their privileged position requires gratitude (the title of one of his books) and service.

Buckley did not bring his Catholic faith directly into his political discourse often. But he wrote of the link between religious values and politics from the start. In 1951 at the age of 25, when he rocketed onto the American radar with God & Man at Yale, Buckley challenged the prevalence of socialism in academia with these words: “The duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world… the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”

In a more general way, Buckley’s Catholic faith informed his character, and so his politics, from top to bottom. In particular in three things: his respect for individual liberty rooted in the God-given inalienable rights upon which the United States is founded; his focus on service, responsibility and tradition; and his personal conduct, always gracious and always seeking Truth even if it worked against his selfish interests.

Like me, Buckley loved Baroque music above all else. (Unlike me, he could also play it on the harpsichord.) He probably winced, as do I, through dull 18th to 20th century Protestant hymns. But aesthetics aside, I find a deeper truth in this. Buckley’s love for Bach especially — he once said, “If Bach is not in Heaven, I am not going!” — is based on the purity of the music: neither overly emotional nor overly complex, everything in its place and nothing superfluous. Bach’s transcendent beauty is in its Truth. In music, in politics and in faith, Buckley sought clarity, not complexity.

A diligent shepherd of the Conservative Movement, Buckley strenuously opposed anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, Ayn Rand’s selfish objectivism, and, with an indefensible delay, segregation. He squarely challenged thugs of all stripes, denouncing, among others, the influence on the right of the John Birch Society.

And while his own moral compass was mostly true, this sometimes put him at odds with the movement he created. Unless you understood the mixture of libertarianism and traditionalism that formed his ideology, his positions sometimes seemed odd, especially side by side: drug legalization and mandatory national service, McCarthyism and anti-racism.

My father passed away under President George H.W. Bush. For better or worse, William F. Buckley lived to see his cherished conservative movement lose its bearings. He wrote before his death that unquestioning support for the Iraq War would be its downfall. Buckley’s son Christopher left National Review and the Republican Party, saying the anti-intellectual populists had regained control.

As I mourn the passing of one of my few personal heroes, I pray for a restoration in the times ahead of the kind of civility he and my father personified.

You can see all the examples I’ve chosen from Firing Line and other shows on the next page.

A different version of this was originally published in Busted Halo in 2008.

"I encourage everyone to read the book "Touching the heart of God" by Paul Wilber. ..."

The not-so-Christian roots of hot cross ..."
"Great article! I love the definition of "anew." I think it helps capture both meanings ..."

Starting Anew
"There are legitimate and good answers to these questions Phil. You sound like a genuine ..."

Advent reflection — Not the Immaculate ..."
"Obama is an idiot and so is the writer of this article. Dinesh is awesome ..."

The Salvation Army has lost my ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • 95Theses

    Though I only just happened upon this today, I felt I compelled to thank you for such a moving tribute. William F. Buckley, Jr. was – from my mid-20s until the day he died – the man I admired most in America. He lived a life that only a handful of people could ever dream of having, let alone compare. Raised in an exclusively Spanish speaking household (he spoke not a word of English until he was 6); being groomed from a very early age to engage and debate a wide spectrum of subjects … at the dinner table … with his parents and siblings. He possessed an intellect! that was enviable. Oh, and what a gifted mind … charm, wit, generosity all combined with a friendly sort of sarcasm. He had achieved so much in his life’s work. True, he had a great head start over most other children of his generation. But not an ounce of it went to waste.

    I wept bittersweet tears the morning I learned he died. I had always wanted to meet the man in person, but that appointment has been rescheduled for the next life. Bill truly was a National Treasure, and though many may try – very, very few people could ever fill his shoes.