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The Buckley Legacy in Voice and Print

Michael Hogue

In vino veritas, in whiskey calamitas!”

Those were the first words of caution ever spoken to me by Bill Buckley—they wouldn’t be the last—as he passed me a large glass of red wine. I’d asked for whiskey. (Jack Kerouac, in a Firing Line appearance, would prove the truth of the maxim.)

We were at his Manhattan duplex, where he was collecting some material before driving to the studio where Firing Line was shot.

Earlier that day, he’d made a rare visit to the National Review editorial offices on the second floor at 150 East 35th Street. (His office was on the third floor, from which he exchanged copy via dumbwaiter with his sister Priscilla, our superb managing editor.) I was needed as a last-minute guest on Firing Line, he told me, to give the program balance.

It was early in 1969, when the wars on the campuses and in the cities were raging. I’d just come east from Berkeley, having been recruited to the NR staff by Bill Buckley in San Francisco, in town to interview Eldridge Cleaver for Firing Line. I’d been sending articles to NR about the riots and disruptions of the period, some of which would form the basis of my first book, The Kumquat Statement, for which Buckley would write a memorable introduction. 

I was still getting my New York sea legs, and my Firing Line appearance remains a blur. But apparently it sufficed. Warren Steibel, the show’s ebullient cigar-smoking producer, told me I was elected to be the third panelist, along with Jeff Greenfield and a young woman, whose name I don’t remember.

My memories of the several programs on which I served as panelist are hazy, but I do remember one with Al Capp, and another with Billy Graham. Dr. Graham was directing an answer to Jeff Greenfield, trying to explain something about the nature of sin, desire, and temptation.  Imagine, Mr. Greenfield, I remember him saying, a juicy brown ham, bursting with juices, fresh from the oven. But Rev. Graham, Greenfield responded, I’m a Jew. As I recall, it brought down the house.

Firing Line first aired in 1966 and ran for 34 years. When it signed off in 1999, it had set a record as the longest-running program with a single host in television history.  During those three decades, the best of the various ideological, political and cultural figures came to debate —among them Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Noam Chomsky, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Muhammad Ali, John Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, Germaine Greer.

Heather Hendershot, professor of film and media at MIT and a self-described liberal (fellowships at Harvard, NYU, Princeton, and Vassar validate her liberal credentials), has apparently carefully viewed each of the 1,504 Firing Line episodes and come away with a wealth of often-astute observations, a deeper understanding of conservatism, and some sweeping conclusions, most of them unexceptionable. (In one uncharacteristic instance, I’d take issue with her negative focus on Firing Line guest Bob Tyrrell, founder and editor of The American Spectator, a highly readable conservative magazine and a favorite of Ronald Reagan’s, which gave first voice to a generation of conservative writers, and most recently opened its pages to supporters of Donald Trump.)

In all, she tells us, there are lessons to be learned from watching those Firing Line episodes. Watch enough of them, “and you will know much more than you ever imagined about … civil rights, feminism, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, libertarianism, the death penalty … the New Journalism, the conservative movement, the counterculture, Vietnam, Bach, China, the Soviet Union, the U.N., Watergate, the U.S Postal Service, and even meat prices and agricultural policy.”

More broadly, the “helicopter view’’ of the program’s long run shows us “a country turning from left to right, from the Great Society to the Reagan Revolution and beyond.” We see “an America that weathered massive civil unrest in the 1960s, the collapse of the presidency in the 1970s, and the rise of conservative approaches to foreign policy in the 1980s: an America that, by the 1990s … had emerged as a society in which certain key cultural values had shifted left, even as the Republican Party had continued its rightward shift, pulling the Democratic Party along in its wake.”

It’s Ms. Hendershot’s “helicopter view” that expands her study of a television program into a social and political history, in which the uneasy relationship between Buckley and Richard Nixon plays a central role. Neither man ever quite understood or felt easy with the other, despite the best efforts of intermediaries like Pat Buchanan or those of us who had worked for both men. Yet although Nixon mistrusted those he called Buckleyites, he’d hired a number of us for his White House staff.

As Neal Freeman told Ms. Hendershot, Nixon knew he needed conservative support, thus “was always looking to make accommodations to the right without fully embracing the right. … Buckley represented the intelligent right with whom he could reach accommodation rather than a full embrace of some kind.”

As for Buckley, a governing principle was to support the most conservative candidate available with the best chance of winning. In 1968, before the Reagan boom and with Nelson Rockefeller mounting a challenge, it boiled down to Richard Nixon. Nevertheless, there was stiff resistance at National Review, led by the publisher, Bill Rusher, to any sort of accommodation.  But at the urgings of Buckley and James Burnham, NR, with deep reservations, finally gave Nixon its endorsement.

Relations remained cool, however, and as Ms. Hendershot points out, despite Pat Buchanan’s best explanations things never really recovered from Nixon’s remark, occasioned by Buckley’s 1965 race for mayor of New York and forwarded to Evans and Novak,  that “the Birchers could be handled, but … the real menace to the Republican Party came from the Buckleyites.”

For example, when Vice President Spiro Agnew (whom I’d met at lunch at Buckley’s duplex, where he asked me to join his staff) gave his extraordinary Des Moines speech on the responsibilities of the media, Buckley attacked it in his column, much to the surprise of nearly everyone; attacked it not for content—media bias was an approved general Buckley/NR/Firing Line topic—but for the quality of the writing. (It was written largely by Pat Buchanan, widely considered one of the best speechwriters in Washington.)

He attacked it for language, “rhetorical arrangements,” rhythms, and getting its stresses wrong, taking special exception to “an effete corps of impudent snobs.” This criticism enraged Agnew’s press secretary, the legendary Vic Gold, who fired off a note to Buckley. That note isn’t included here and may no longer exist. But, as I remember, it read something like this: “Dear Bill: How’s this for rhythms—‘An effete goddamn corps of impudent goddamn snobs.’”

Although Ms. Hendershot doesn’t explore it, Spiro Agnew had become a hero for the Richard Nixon/Pat Buchanan “Silent Majority,” those who became Reagan Democrats and went silent again until Donald Trump made them roar, and in so doing created a whole new world of pain, not just for liberals but also for establishment conservatives.

Interestingly, you could probably draw a line from Bill Buckley’s supporters in his 1965 run for New York City mayor down through Nixon/Agnew, to Ronald Reagan, and now to Donald Trump. Buckley may have spoken with what the press called a “patrician accent,’’ but his supporters spoke with clear New York working-class, blue-collar accents. 

Buckley, despite his rhetorical irritation, thought well personally of Spiro Agnew, as was demonstrated in his Firing Line appearance. So did the NR staff, especially Bill Rusher, who stayed in touch with Agnew’s highly regarded conservative political adviser, David Keene. It was no secret that Agnew would be a favorite for the presidential nomination in 1976. In fact, had Agnew not been forced from office in 1973, he would have been president in 1974.

As Ms. Hendershot writes, whatever the byzantine politics of the period, Richard Nixon’s fall made the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s possible. The 1960s and ’70s were a time of revolution, of failed presidents, political instability, race riots, burning cities, assassinations, bombings, armed groups with revolutionary aspirations, and the blight of Vietnam. It was Richard Nixon’s mandate—the job for which he was hired—to end the war in Vietnam and put down the insurrection at home. He did both, fulfilling his mandate, and then, with Watergate, setting off the final great explosion of the era—an explosion that destroyed his career and his presidency, but also took with it much of the debris of nearly two dishonest decades. It also cleared the way for Ronald Reagan.

But just as Richard Nixon was not truly a conservative, his fall was not the fall of conservatism. Quite to the contrary, after the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter interlude, Reagan captured the White House, with an all-out assist from Buckley, including several Firing Line specials structured to showcase Reagan’s great potential as a national and international leader. Ronald Reagan became the political voice and face of a new and eloquent conservatism that Bill Buckley had made respectable—and also stylish.

Ms. Hendershot quotes Neal Freeman: “That was the meaning of Firing Line. That was the meaning of National Review and its political triumph with Reagan. Other people could have made it respectable. Nobody else could have made it stylish.” That was much the way Henry Regnery, publisher of God and Man at Yale, put it to me a couple of decades ago. Bill Buckley, he said, “has given the conservative movement a style and rhetoric of its own, and has done more than anyone else to reconcile potentially conflicting viewpoints into a coherent intellectual force.”

His program remained popular to the end. Bill Buckley was a man who believed totally in the truth of his positions; and he was speaking, albeit with that unidentifiable accent, to the old American verities, given new life by a revitalized American conservatism.  From the beginning, despite being shot in a studio that could have passed for a warehouse, with a stand and a pitcher of water and some chairs scattered around, one conservative with a clipboard demonstrated that the best of the various leftist intellectual and activist spokesmen could be outthought and outdebated—and were, with regularity.

In 1985, at National Review’s 30th anniversary party, President Reagan would put it this way: “You and I remember a time of the forest primeval, a time when nightmare and danger reigned and only the knights of darkness prevailed; when conservatives seemed without a champion. And then, suddenly riding up through the lists, came our clipboard-bearing Galahad: ready to take on any challengers in the critical battle of point and counterpoint. And with grace and humor and passion, to raise a standard to which patriots and lovers of freedom could repair.”

That was the public Buckley of Firing Line. The private Buckley was very much the same man—like his friend Ronald Reagan, exactly what he seemed to be.

It’s that public-private man we see in A Torch Kept Lit, a selection of some of the best of Bill Buckley’s eulogies, written primarily for National Review, and edited by James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News. Rosen is also an accomplished writer in his own right. His biography of Attorney General John Mitchell, The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, launched with a grant from Bill Buckley, was called by William Safire “a Pulitzer quality biography” and “the most revealing and insightful book I’ve read about that era.”  My own assessment is that Rosen writes with the immediacy of a newsman, the touch of a novelist, and the perspective of an historian.

He brings those gifts to the introductions he writes for each of the eulogies—informative, explanatory when necessary, and always tasteful. There is a eulogy for John Mitchell here, in an introduction to which Rosen gently corrects Buckley for erroneously ascribing responsibility for ordering the Watergate break-in to Mitchell. There is no doubt that Rosen knows who ordered it, as indeed Rosen knows far more than most about that byzantine and much-misunderstood episode. Even Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee, as his biographer Jeff Himmelman reveals, had questions about the true nature of Bob Woodward’s relationship with his secret source, “Deep Throat.’’

At National Review, we’d occasionally be asked to write an RIP. I did several, among them one for Jack Kerouac, who above all wanted to play football for Columbia but broke his leg and ended up leading a movement. Years later I was asked to write one for Spiro Agnew, a man for whom I’d worked and greatly admired. And I was honored to be asked to write an appreciation of Priscilla Buckley, Bill’s sister and a wonderful person who, with the help of several strong women, among them Linda Bridges, Frances Bronson, and Agatha Schmidt, held it all together and made it work.

Although some of us could fill in on some of the RIPs, they were the very special province of Bill Buckley, and had been since the founding of the magazine. As Rosen points out, he took pride in writing his nationally syndicated column, twice a week, in 20 minutes.  But as “the principal obituarist at National Review,” as he put it, he took more time with his eulogies. As Rosen writes, they “demanded that he use his gifts fully, and he answered the charge.”

Of the people whose eulogies Rosen includes here, there are presidents, personalities, enemies like Alger Hiss (or perhaps more appropriately, nemeses), friends both known—Whittaker Chambers—and unknown, Charles Wallen, as well as a category of “Generals, Spies, and Statesmen.”

Among the latter is Golda Meir: “Golda looked after her people with ruthless disregard for lesser matters. And all other matters were lesser matters. If she had been president of the United States, we’d have had peace in Indochina, in the Mideast, in the Far East; and Moscow, a quaint duchy in the heartland of Asia, would be exporting wheat and importing Jews. God be with her. She will look after him. —WFB”

His obituary of Richard Nixon reflects the ambivalent nature of their long association. “In the final analysis, he was a heroic, intensely personal figure, whose life was lived on the public stage. He was at once the weakest of men, and the strongest; a master of self-abuse, and self-recovery. Stained by worldliness, and driven by the hunger to serve. For Americans under seventy, there never was a world without Richard Nixon. Not many people can pitch whole generations into loneliness, as he has now done, RIP. —WFB”

There is no ambivalence in the eulogies for those closest to him, which, as Rosen puts it, “so closely fused his religious faith and literary gift.” In his eulogy for his wife, Patricia Taylor Buckley, he ends with an observation by a friend and his response.

The friend: “I am a confirmed nonbeliever, but for once I would like to be mistaken, and hope that, for you, this is not goodbye, but hasta luego.”   

WFB: “No alternative thought could make continuing in life, for me, tolerable.”

In Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, a book with which he struggled, Buckley writes of Anatole France’s story of the juggler who, ashamed of the paucity of his accomplishments in comparison to those of his  fellow monks, made his way into the chapel in the dead of night and did his juggling act for Our Lady.  “I wish I could here give to my readers a sense of my own personal struggle, but there is no sufficient story there to tell. I leave it at this, that if I could juggle, I’d do so for Our Lady. I suppose I am required to say that, in fact, I have here endeavored to do my act for her.”

As he did, with some 56 books, thousands of columns, articles, reviews, speeches, more than 500 RIPs, and 1,504 episodes of Firing Line. As his friend Ronald Reagan might have put it, “Not bad, Bill, not bad at all.” 


John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement.

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