To the world, William F. Buckley Jr. is a perpetual-motion writing, speaking, editing, and inspiring machine—not the founder, but certainly par excellence the major impresario of contemporary American conservatism—writer, editor, columnist, novelist, wit, and commentator whose literary and spoken output is unmatched until we turn back to the 18th century.
My first awareness of Bill Buckley Jr. came in a brief congratulatory note he wrote me in 1950 about Seeds of Treason, my account of the Alger Hiss case, which was then perched high in the bestseller lists. It was typical of Bill that in addition to his generous praise he excused me from any reply. My next (remote) contact came when the book that brought him to national attention, God and Man at Yale, arrived at Newsweek. By happy accident I was substituting, in addition to my duties as a National Affairs editor, for a vacationing Religion/Education editor, an egregious liberal-leftist who would have tossed the book into the round file, dusting off her hands. My enthusiastic review earned me her bitter recriminations. “People will think I wrote it,” she grieved—to her a fate far worse than death.
God and Man at Yale projected Bill Buckley, a quondam Yale BMOC with an as-yet-undiscovered CIA stint, into the embattled community of writers, pundits, and journalists who had been for years laboring in the frustrating conservative and anti-Communist vineyard—to name but a few of them, John Chamberlain, James Burnham, and (modestly) myself—and, in my case, into a warm personal friendship that has survived the depredations of the neoconservatives. Bill was in a way sui generis among us. Intellectually and brilliantly tough but personally gentle-hearted, Burkean in philosophy (with a bow to Russell Kirk), and pleasantly charismatic, he differed vastly from the ink-stained and Grub Street us, as he marched with the earnest, red-cheeked undergraduates whom he had organized into the Young Americans for Freedom—and dallied with the likes of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Gore Vidal without retching.
Recall the time. Identified conservatives and anti-Communists looked cautiously in both directions when leaving their houses and scanned the newspapers for accusations that they had falsified their tax returns or molested young boys. And the enfilading fire came not only from the Left. I remember my mixed emotions when Ayn Rand confided to a friend, “Toledano’s all right, even though he believes in God.” (She was not as kind to Whittaker Chambers or National Review when he doused one of her interminable novels.) Bill believed in God, but like only a few of us he could be a close friend of Murray Kempton, then a brilliant, anarchical columnist for the New York Post, who aimed his typewriter like a machine gun at twaddling conservatives and even the equally twaddling leftist Walter Reuther.
Those days, the press and academia were night-riding in pursuit of Whittaker Chambers and Joe McCarthy. “There’s no experience like knowing Whittaker Chambers,” Bill remarked, and it did not take Witness for him to recognize the greatness of that tragic man. Whittaker was avuncularly very fond of Bill, but he could remark to me, when he was attempting to recoup on Wall Street what he had lost by his friend’s witness, “When Bill buys, I sell, and when Bill sells, I buy.”
Bill fought unremittingly for Joe McCarthy. It was in the course of the battle that Bill and Brent Bozell wrote McCarthy and His Enemies, a carefully researched and closely reasoned account and defense of the McCarthy phenomenon and examination of the vicious onslaught against him. Since I had been at and on Joe McCarthy’s side since his Feb. 9, 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Bill sent the manuscript to me to check it for accuracy. I found perhaps a dozen minuscule errors in dates and such, which were passed on to Bill. He called to thank me and said that he was sending “a little cadeau.” Several days later, there was a knock at my door and two men came in bearing a large wooden case—the 12, or is it 13, ponderous volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. In return, I sent him Frank Meyer, who had come to me when breaking with the Party, drunk my liquor, spent many hours at my house in political and theological discourse, and who became National Review’s guru on conservative purity.
Richard Nixon was something else. From the Hiss case on, I had been Dick’s strongest media advocate and certainly the newsman closest to him. Bill, however, was in the opposition, arguing presciently that Nixon was no true conservative. We once debated the issue before a large audience. Since the days of God and Man and the McCarthy opus, Bill Buckley had moved deservedly onward and upward in the growing ranks of American conservatism. He had founded National Review, which seemed like a very small acorn against the mighty oaks of establishment media. Early on he had offered me the managing editorship. “This is the last, best hope of America,” his associate Willi Schlamm—former editor of the Rote Fahne, Austrian Stalinism’s leading publication, and one-time revolutionary boulevardier—had urged, which I, as a Newsweek editor with a wife and two kids to support, could not quite accept.
In the ’50s, Bill had not yet achieved the status where he could bid the mightiest to his table or sit at it with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Though, as noted, he had been sharply critical of the vice president, Bill asked me if I could arrange a meeting with Dick. Too bad it was not recorded on videotape. Nixon, as always, was impressed by money, intellect, and public status, of which Bill had all three. And Bill at the time had not yet traded pleasantries with a vice president of these United States. There was an awkward silence until I threw in a provocative remark, and then there was an exchange. Then the lamp was lit. So when Richard Nixon became president, Bill was appointed to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and I was invited to a White House prayer breakfast at which Norman Vincent Peale assured us, “Jesus loves me/This I know/For the Bible/Tells me so.”
This may all be inconsequential and personal. What does it tell us about Miles Gone By, announced on its cover as a “literary autobiography” of William F. Buckley Jr., as if to assure the reader that Bill’s brain, fingers, and computer had not lost their cunning? Were his publishers suggesting that Miles Gone By was entering the literary lists as a rival to The Education of Henry Adams, a modestly third-person autobiography? Henry Adams, the distinguished descendant of two presidents, a figure of deep historical and philosophical apperceptions, was writing less about himself and more about the state of the world he had experienced.
Bill Buckley might do this with a focus on an important part of our times. In affectionate awe and admiration, I have viewed Bill Buckley as a Renaissance man, who could write serious books and implausible, though fascinating, novels; traverse Bach on a harpsichord in a concert hall yet murder popular music on the piano; who could give Kipling’s If a run for its money; who could as a candidate (so to speak) for mayor of New York give politics a deserved jape by remarking, “if elected I will demand a recount”; and who strode the acres of American politics and the American condition. Of this there could have been an autobiography to approach The Education of Henry Adams.
But Miles Gone By is something else again. From his vast output of articles, books, and speeches, Bill has culled passages and excerpts that deal with his personal life or with professional relationships that have been part of that life. There are evocations of his extraordinary parents and his equally extraordinary siblings and off-the-elbow trivia about creating a family wine cellar. There are pages on how God and Man at Yale was received, but almost nothing about God and Bill’s travail in New Haven; almost nothing about his rise in, and phenomenal impact upon, the world of politics and letters; too much about his joys before the mast, but little about his sailing into the wind of the liberal Establishment. Nothing again of the evolution of the concepts and ideology that he brought into the conservative movement, but there are obituary or retrospective tributes to those, celebrated or otherwise significant, who impinged on Bill’s life as he impinged on theirs—James Burnham, Wilmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, Whittaker Chambers, Murray Kempton, to name a few. Much has been written about Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and other titans of American politics. But there is still much to know about them, and Bill Buckley could have contributed to such evocative knowledge.
In short, Miles Gone By is an autobiographical aperitif when what we should have had is the whole roast. Bill Buckley insists that he will not write a real autobiography—is it out of modesty, or is it out of a post molestam senectutem fatigue? A part of the autobiography of John Dos Passos exists in the posthumous publication of his letters. But a full Dos Passos autobiography would have told us much that has not been said about the literary world of the 1920s and the Spanish Civil War. Autobiographical accounts are part of the endless rendition of our divina commedia. And so, though there is much that is good and memorable to read in this volume, and a reminder of what was once before indited, it is not the “literary” account of a man and his life that the cover alleges.
That memoir, I submit, which would live long after Bill Buckley’s many other books have passed on, must be written. That, in friendship, is an order.
Ralph de Toledano is a former editor of Newsweek and the author or editor of over 20 books, including Notes From the Underground: the Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960.