I suppose I’m not supposed to mourn the passing of William F. Buckley Jr. but I can’t help myself. Buckley was was a fierce proponent of a sort of spare, consistent arch-conservativism that one almost longs for in these days of big-government, big-business Republicanism.
Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article this week, “On the Bus: Can John McCain reinvent Republicanism?” reminds us, as if we need it, that there are many types of Republican – the radical religious right-wingers who flocked to Huckabee; the strangle-government types such as Grover Norquist; the small-government Goldwater/Reagan types; the oddly pragmatic sort that Gingrich has turned into; the moderates in the tradition of Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller (it’s Lizza’s contention that McCain falls into this category); and the libertarians, such as Ron Paul (except that Paul is also a bat-shit-crazy conspiracy theorist).
While I’ve never been a connoisseur of conservatism, and so I might get this wrong, Buckley struck me as one who straddled the Goldwater and libertarian camps, reminding them both to be at once pragmatic and pure. And while he sometimes wore the same ideological blinders as, say, Reagan, he was also committed to reason in a way that few hard-core conservatives are. And so it is that the moment I remember best about Buckley was also one of his most rational and therefore also, surely, one of his finest.
I couldn’t have been more than about 16. It was, therefore, about 1972, and my grandmother had that still-rare commodity, a color television. I’m not sure that’s why I was downstairs, in her part of the house, while she was out, or whether it was just to watch some TV without arguing with anyone about what to have on. I don’t know why I would have stopped turning the dial at Firing Line, except that in the days of 9 channels and no remotes it was sometimes even harder to find something worthwhile than it is with today’s 999.
And so I sat on her worn couch, watching her Sony television. Any memory of her place necessarily includes the lingering smells of olive oil, chicken livers, overripe bananas, and Chesterfield nonfiltered cigarettes. If it was winter, then her place was also much warmer than the basement couch I slept on.
Certainly the topic itself was interesting – decriminalizing drugs. I’d certainly done my share already, but one certainly knew what a Buckley would think about them, and who needed to hear that? I guess the thing is, I don’t channel surf as quickly as most people do.
I don’t know who Buckley’s guest was. All I know is that he advocated decriminalizing drugs, and he had plenty of good reasons, and he was kicking Buckley’s ass, because he had none. And there was this moment somewhere down near the bottom of the hour, maybe at the 28 minute mark, when you could see this look on Buckley’s face as if he was hearing the guy for the first time and you could see that 2+2 was starting to equal 4 for him.
Wait, you could hear him think. A small government doesn’t care what adults do in the privacy of their own home. Wait, these people are only hurting themselves, if anyone, and a small government is okay with that. Wait, why should a government care about whether people self-medicate with cocaine instead of caffeine? Actually, that’s more of a 1980s thought. But I do think I remember his guest asking Buckley where he would draw the line: what if the government decided to consider caffeine a narcotic?
Right then and there I saw that rare thing, someone listening to the voice of reason enough to switch sides. On television, with millions (okay, some significant fraction of a million) watching. And a hard-line conservative to boot.
But Buckley wasn’t just any hard-line conservative. He was a thoughtful guy. He could hear, and even heed, the voice of reason. And forever that made him and me more alike than different. Farewell, WFB, Jr. Goodspeed.