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William F. Buckley’s Cure for Our Broken Politics

This February marks the 11th year since the passing of William F. Buckley Jr., arguably the single greatest trailblazer in the annals of modern American conservatism.

Buckley is most often remembered as a matchless thinker and commentator; he was also an exceptionally prolific writer, a nationally renowned television host, and an insuperable debater. He was, in the words [1] of George H. Nash, “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century.”

But he was also so personable and considerate a man that, alongside his professional work, he took the time to, in the words of Lee Edwards [2], write letters to “thousands of people, many of whom he did not know but thought deserved a reply.” To quote Nash again, Buckley “may well have composed more letters than any American who has ever lived.” One does not build such an epistolary record without an honest respect for, and interest in, one’s correspondents.

The sufferings and needs of his fellow citizens touched Buckley deeply throughout his career. A thoughtful Catholic, he recounted his beliefs and faith journey in his 1997 spiritual autobiography Nearer, My God. He viewed current affairs in light of his belief in the love and power of God, attempting to challenge ingrained injustice not in the name of a vague “progress” or reflexive traditionalism, but in the service of truth.

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He was certainly, by his own admission, not perfect, and revised his own positions on several issues during his long career. But he always rendered an honest—and informed—effort in the cause of God and his country.

Buckley’s life and achievements have been recounted and reexamined numerous times over the last decade. But given today’s contentious social atmosphere, it would do us well to look back at what made Buckley so unique in his field—and why his role as a edifying force in our culture was such an invaluable one.

By examining his career and approach to his work, we can learn from Buckley two lessons. First, in order to successfully improve one’s society and fellow citizens, one must challenge the corrosive forces of relativism and moral indifference; second, that one must do this intelligently and with respect, lest one’s passion to improve be corrupted into mere bluster. Hardly anyone is converted to a cause—or even dissuaded from their own—by mere shouts.

In 1951, Buckley’s classic God and Man at Yale—which critiqued the pervasive and biased leftism of Yale’s faculty and curriculum—brought him into the national spotlight and indelibly altered the course of his life. An intellectually daring 26 year old, Buckley demonstrated that he was not afraid to publicly critique the assumptions of the post-war American establishment. He maintained this pugilistic yet respectable attitude throughout his career, on his Emmy-winning PBS program Firing Line, in the pages of his magazine National Review, and in his nationally syndicated newspaper column “On the Right,” which began running in 1962.

Yet Buckley’s voluminous pen and sonorous transatlantic accent have long since been quieted. Picking up and continuing his legacy has become a formidable task.

In this time of division, when old compromises [3] and conventions seem to be unraveling, can anyone fill the elevating role that William F. Buckley once did?

Perhaps, as Rod Dreher argues [4], America as a society has lost the common ground it needs for Buckley’s approach to be useful; that conservatives and liberals are too dissevered to truly be one “common people” anymore. In Dreher’s view, conventional Christians have in recent decades become so drastically separated from mainstream culture that their best hope is to follow in the footsteps of Saint Benedict, a strategy which he calls the “Benedict option.” That means, if not founding Benedictine monasteries, then separating from the cultural mainstream and founding countercultural communities that can withstand the forces of modern secularism.

Others, such as Andrew T. Walker at  [5]Public Discourse [5], are more optimistic [5]. Walker proposes a vision of conservative engagement with society that he refers to as the “Buckley option.” A new Buckley-type figure could find success in the current environment, Walker believes, by being brave and “standing athwart history,” just as Buckley himself did. “The Buckley Option will insist,” Walkers says, “on a Christianity whose ethics are intelligible, life-giving, and at all times applicable to the public square.”

For my part, I do not think that these two strategies are mutually exclusive.

But through all these considerations, we should not lose sight of the facts: notwithstanding the diametrically opposed views of Buckley and many of his sparring partners, they lived in an America that still held many ideals in common and believed in a common American culture and a Western identity worth preserving. They also held to a common standard of public decency—one that, for example, allowed Buckley to politely interview someone as divergent as Allen Ginsberg, the well known hippie writer and exponent of LSD, on [6]Firing Line [6]in May 1968. [6]

In place of Buckleyite bonhomie, today’s political climate is characterized by bitter vitriol, provoking ideological media feuds that would have been unthinkable during the sleepy days of midcentury CBS and NBC dominance. While this shift has not been without its benefits for the free exchange of ideas, its downside should be examined soberly.

The internet is undoubtedly responsible for some of this change, but we cannot entirely place the blame on the progress of technology. The core of the problem, I would argue, lies in the first of Buckley’s lessons that I mentioned—his warning against relativism. We have lost that common pith of beliefs and values, which throughout history has been essential in the formation of united societies. How can a civilization persist if it cannot even agree on the most basic of truths, or even, increasingly, on the existence of ontological truth in the first place? The issues of social division and polarization cannot be solved without ameliorating this more basic division.

The aforementioned May 1968 episode of Firing Line with Ginsberg may hold another lesson on what happens when agreement over first principles is lost—and how Buckley’s style of inquiry can expose the heart of that disagreement.

In the course of the hour long episode, Buckley and Ginsberg explore, among other things, the topics of Christianity and human love. Yet as becomes clear during the interview, while they use the same terms, the two men seem to have entirely different concepts in mind.

At one point during the episode, Buckley asks if love is something, as the hippies had it, that one can simply “crank on, preferably under some narcotic impulse.” Is that truly love? Ginsberg counters that the drug usage and libertinism that defined the hippie movement stemmed from a desire to connect “separate, alienated, isolated individuals” who had supposedly been, until that point, pawns of the military-industrial complex. Buckley responds that “the fraternity of Christianity is exactly about that, to show that we are a community.”

When the topic shifts to the Vietnam War, Ginsberg declares that “dropping LSD” over American and Viet Cong lines would do far more to resolve the conflict than dropping napalm. In a key moment, however, when Buckley asks Ginsberg if, “having run temporarily out of LSD,” he would “drop napalm on a Gestapo unit on its way to Buchenwald to kill 100,000 Jews,” Ginsberg has no answer for him. He simply tells Buckley that the “goose is out of the bottle” and shifts the topic, saying that we need to use “our money” to “buy off Ho Chi Minh and buy off Mao Zedong.”

In this way, Buckley deftly exposed the limits of Ginsberg’s ideology. In a charged moment immediately following the above exchange, he asserts to Ginsberg, “You can’t effectively love anybody unless you are prepared to recognize the fact of sinfulness—any attempt to immanentize flower power is just going to lead you right to Buchenwald.”

The issue of Vietnam aside, can one truly love, in a broader sense, if one is unwilling to protect threatened innocence, even if one must use violent means to do so? Either there is a moral absolute—something worth defending with strenuous acts—or there is no true morality at all.

The two men, close though they may be on certain points, differ in their first principles. It is this same confusion that so bedevils today’s politics.

I would contend that the failure of Ginsberg’s radical worldview is that it does not allow for the moral boundaries that, in the final reckoning, are necessary for the defense of the innocent and the preservation of human freedom. As has been said, for dictatorship to work, every subject must bow to one ruler, but for free government to work, every citizen must rule himself.

Moral relativism is ultimately a philosophical absurdity, because to claim there is no moral absolute is itself an absolute claim. While a change in circumstances may incidentally change the moral import of certain acts, the underlying moral constants and laws always remain the same—semper eadem, as the old Latin phrase puts it.

If Buckley’s worldview holds any lesson for today’s politics, it must be that limits are a necessary precondition for freedom, and that a childish dismissal of moral rules, while seemingly liberating, is in fact the shortest way to fascism.

If Buckley and Ginsburg did not come to total agreement, their debate, at least, let them air their views in a clear way that demonstrated the philosophical superiority of Buckley’s argument. This style of intelligent, realistic, and open discourse is the best antidote to the “bubble” syndrome our politics are stuck in. Buckley demonstrated his belief—throughout his many newspaper columns, Firing Line episodes, and magazine articles—in a society where people could air and compare their differences, with an eye to achieving, if not total agreement, at least a constructive understanding of the issues.

The foremost factor behind today’s social division is this loss of common belief in, and understanding of, objective good. And until we can find our way back to a unity of belief, the best way forward is the “Buckley option”—balanced when circumstances call for it (and they increasingly do) with Dreher’s “Benedict option.”

First, to challenge the corrosive forces in one’s culture, and secondly to fight the fight intelligently, clearly, and analytically. These are William F. Buckley Jr.’s two great lessons for us all.

Jack H. Burke has contributed to National Review. He is also a former White House intern and served as a U.S. congressional staff member.

36 Comments (Open | Close)

36 Comments To "William F. Buckley’s Cure for Our Broken Politics"

#1 Comment By G On February 5, 2019 @ 12:58 am

This style of intelligent, realistic, and open discourse is the best antidote to the “bubble” syndrome our politics are stuck in.

I totally agree. We spend far more time calling attention to unfair treatment that of our own side experiences in political discourse and pointing out the hypocrisy of the other side than we do in trying to achieve “at least a constructive understanding of the issues.”

Nothing will get better simply by pointing out louder and more frequently how unfairly we are treated and how hypocritical our political opponents are.

#2 Comment By Swabian in Exile On February 5, 2019 @ 2:22 am

Buckley conservatism, conserved nothing.

#3 Comment By Dominique Watkins On February 5, 2019 @ 4:05 am

Persuading people of an objective truth or good is a steep climb in a society prepared to commit infanticide. But you are correct.

#4 Comment By midtown On February 5, 2019 @ 5:59 am

I’m afraid winsomeness gets your exactly nothing in today’s politics. It’s a cold war now. It doesn’t mean we should treat our opponents with anything less than Christian love, but don’t expect them to share the same vision of the good.

#5 Comment By Kent On February 5, 2019 @ 6:55 am

How would we ever agree on objective good? Even Catholics, who have the Vicar of Christ on Earth, cannot agree on objective good.

If objective good exists, can it pierce through human fallibility? I say no, only if because the Holy Spirit has led us to thousands of denominations of Christianity.

“If one is unwilling to protect threatened innocence”. Careful here. There is much threatened innocence in the world that we refuse to recognize in furtherance of our own goals. Not just the ones handed down from the pulpit. Hypocrisy will be exposed on all sides.

#6 Comment By Sam M On February 5, 2019 @ 8:16 am

” demonstrated the philosophical superiority of Buckley’s argument. This style of intelligent, realistic, and open discourse is the best antidote to the “bubble” syndrome our politics are stuck in.”

Is it the best antidote? Buckley applied it with great gusto. Did it work? Did the average American trend toward Buckley or toward Ginsburg since he administered this cure?

I think people find the Ginsburg view more convincing or more convenient. I don’t. But I don’t want to fool myself.

#7 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On February 5, 2019 @ 8:33 am

Excellent article. I always found Buckley’s writing to be turgid and difficult to follow at times. Not so on television or in person, where he was a work of art. I had the pleasure of seeing him when he gave a lecture at my college in the late 60s. And watching “Firing Line” was, for me, mandatory viewing. What a treat it was to see him spar with the likes of Noam Chomsky! And his discussions with Malcolm Muggeridge were endlessly fascinating. Towards the end of his career he seemed to have lost the old fire, and it is sad to note the degree to which he caved in to the neocons. Nevertheless, the intellect, wit and wisdom of the man known as “WFB” is sorely missed these days.

#8 Comment By kwill On February 5, 2019 @ 9:19 am

Conservative moral absolutism has brought us torture in Iraq, “fake news”, denial of proven facts and truths and your churches appear more interested in republican politics than God or Jesus. While not against moral absolutes, I do not see it as in any way related to modern conservatism.
I do wish for honest dialog between competing ideologies, especially in national venues, but in a society that venerates naked capitalism and consumerism above all else, it will not happen. It would not work in a media that thrives on sensationalism and division. Every atomized group wants to be a martyr and a victim including the conservatives who so decry it on this web site.
If you actually believed in honest dialog conservatives would not support media like fox or the hate radio talkers. Where are your Buckleys? Why are they not on fox news? Where are actual socialist commentators? Media editorial opinion almost always reflects the opinion of the oligarchs of the corporate world. Little else is “serious”. So much has to changed to bring us closer together.

#9 Comment By Argon On February 5, 2019 @ 9:27 am

I remember his tussle with Gore Vidal…

#10 Comment By Herbert Zigler On February 5, 2019 @ 9:31 am

It’s only my opinion, as a fan of Firing Line, but I’d like to believe that Buckley, upon Trump’s election, would’ve been the first to quote Mencken, and unlike many liberals, would’ve gotten the entire quote right.

#11 Comment By GaryH On February 5, 2019 @ 9:55 am

In the real world, the ‘Buckley Option’ featured the destruction of Joe Sobran to please culturally and morally liberal Neocons.

Buckley always acted, eventually, to try to make the WASP establishment and the Jewish equivalent of the WASP establishment at least pretend to respect him and his magazine. The Buckley who went to meet his Maker was about as conservative in the things that matter most as the average Ivy League Episcopalian moderate of the 1950s.

#12 Comment By Jack On February 5, 2019 @ 10:30 am

Those on the left believe that merely wearing MAGA hats makes one a Nazi. When those on the left have such extreme views, it’s difficult to have a civil conversation with them.

#13 Comment By Saul On February 5, 2019 @ 10:37 am

Done…Let it be known to all that NOW, I shall, by command, believe in the moral absolutism of the Bible, like “blessed is he who is generous to the poor, but first drug-test those unwashed masses,” [Proverbs 14:21] and my personal favorite “You shall not oppress a sojourner…but first, build that wall” [Exodus 23:9]

#14 Comment By Yorkshirepudding On February 5, 2019 @ 10:37 am

Fusionist politics is (thankfully) dying out; time to move on from Buckley and the ‘conservatarian’ fake-conservative movement

#15 Comment By polistra On February 5, 2019 @ 11:00 am

Buckley was CIA. That’s all I need to know. He was a sworn enemy of this country and an enemy of civilization.

#16 Comment By Locksley On February 5, 2019 @ 11:13 am

Shirley Temple was ‘winsome’; that wasn’t really Bill’s style.

#17 Comment By TomG On February 5, 2019 @ 11:37 am

I used to be a loyal viewer of Firing Line and particularly enjoyed the conversations with recurrent guests John Kenneth Galbraith, Jean Kirkpatrick, Cornel West and Malcolm Muggeridge.

I couldn’t disagree more then to suggest that Mr. Deher’s Benedict Option is some sort of piece to the puzzle of a way forward. He might want to recall that Benedict’s first community tried to poison him for his imposition of authority. Benedict did learn humility and hospitality from that experience which Deher in his moralizing madness has yet to imbue.

The violence of our culture and the mask behind which it tried to hide over the past 50 years has been torn asunder. We can moralize all day long about individual human behavior we don’t approve of, but as the prophets taught centuries ago moral failure consist of the collective sins of national pride, disregard for the ‘widow and the orphan’, and warring madness. No amount of polite discourse can substitute for the confession of our national sins of militarism, violence (against people and the earth) and the hubris that drowns all dissent.

#18 Comment By JohnT On February 5, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

Writing in 1957, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically,” because the white race was “for the time being, the advanced race.”
He later changed his convictions, of course, much in the same way Henry Ford stopped getting wealthier building war machines for Adolf and starting building war machines for Franklin. Selective history and idol worship seldom serve the common good.

#19 Comment By hooly On February 5, 2019 @ 12:58 pm

Buckley’s time and come and gone, like Christianity within Western civilization itself. Interesting while it lasted, but it’s time to move on.

And this constant whining about ‘moral relativism’, sorry but this is just another way to say you should believe the same way I believe or you’re a moral relativist, or a fascist, or some other example of nasty name calling. This is exactly the same way the SJWs and the Far Left think. How ironic.

#20 Comment By Mike S On February 5, 2019 @ 1:00 pm

Brilliant article. First time I have read this author, I believe. He hits the nail on the head more than once, but especially when he opines, “If Buckley’s worldview holds any lesson for today’s politics, it must be that limits are a necessary precondition for freedom, and that a childish dismissal of moral rules, while seemingly liberating, is in fact the shortest way to fascism.” Shelby Steele uses a term in one of his books, “poetic truth” to define what the Left collectively believes. Poetic truth is like poetic license, something which is used in place of what should properly be used in a real world context. The reverse of poetic truth is fact-based truth. Poetic truth reflects what the Left’s group mentality WANTS to believe is the truth. Childish, foolish and headed for oblivion.

#21 Comment By George On February 5, 2019 @ 1:05 pm

There are indeed many admirable aspects to William F, Buckley’s career and approach to combatting the left, but something needs to be acknowledged before going down that road again: he lost the culture war, and Allen Ginsberg won. So why should we think we would be anymore successful with such a strategy now? Buckley’s intellectualism—and frankly elitism—was of a different time and place where such things carried more weight than they do now. And intellectual debate isn’t even the struggle for the most part. The political and cultural struggle is mostly a game of messaging and in particular fights over being able to message in the first place. The left is out to “deplatform” the right to control the message, to control how people think. And there are tactical battles being fought constantly over this. If Buckley were still around, how would he factor into something like this? The left would be trying to deplatform him right now, except of course if he was attacking President Trump.

#22 Comment By Mike S On February 5, 2019 @ 1:07 pm

Kwill–
He or she who likely watches CNN, MSNBC, Don Lemon, Rachel Maddow and their ilk, is in no position to throw stones.

#23 Comment By Youknowho On February 5, 2019 @ 1:59 pm

An observation: Buckley’s espousal of moral absolute did not keep him from opposing the Civil Rights Movement. Which means that he engaged in a covert sort of moral relativism which is to proclaim that one’s relatives values are absolute.

At heart moral relativism is the acknowledgment that there is an option which is even worse and be ready to choose the lesser harm. Like that doctor in the extermiation camp who knew that pregant women would be vivisected by Dr. Mengele, and thus performed a lot of abortions – she knew that the alternative was worse.

In any case, how long before Buckley would be called a RINO today?

#24 Comment By Jeeves On February 5, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

Another Christian offered a different kind of survivalist’s guide, perhaps more akin to the Benedict Option:

“Abjuring the Realm: To make an interior act of renunciation and to become a stranger in the world; to watch one’s fellow countrymen, as one used to watch foreigners, curious of their habits, patient of their absurdities, indifferent to their animosities–that is the secret of happiness in the century of the common man.”
–from the Diary of Evelyn Waugh, March 26, 1961

#25 Comment By blackhorse On February 5, 2019 @ 5:17 pm

Ginsberg represents the fringe. Buckley, who was at war with the center (post-New Deal social policy, containment, desegregation) was the other end of the stick. What Dwight MacDonalds said about Buckley goes for todays GOP: America needs a principled Conservatism. Buckely) is not it.

#26 Comment By kwill On February 5, 2019 @ 6:32 pm

Mike S.
I do not watch CNN MSNBC etc because I have not owned a television in over 30 years. Besides this point, I have offended you and probably others because of the offense I take at the self-righteousness I find mainly with conservatives but others as well. I grew up in the south, in a smallish sized town. Not belonging to a church, I was publicly ridiculed by teachers in school, harassed by police for long hair etc. and hence moralizing by anyone hits a raw nerve. I have done nothing to change anyone’s mind and only added more rancor and devisiveness to this conversation. For this I am sorry and regretful of my post. Please accept my apologies.

#27 Comment By Sam M On February 5, 2019 @ 6:40 pm

Hooly,

“Buckley’s time and come and gone, like Christianity within Western civilization itself. Interesting while it lasted, but it’s time to move on.”

Solid prediction! People have been saying it for 2,000 years or so. Bound to be right one of these times, right?

Maybe you are smarter than everyone else who ever predicted it, and you are poised to be the right person in the right time and the right place to make the call.

I hope you don’t take offense if I bet against you?

#28 Comment By TR On February 5, 2019 @ 7:05 pm

Wow! So many Buckley haters. But the way, he was not only wrong on segregation, but was a great admirer of J. Edgar Hoover. I wonder if he changed his mind on that.

In the past few weeks on the TAC site, I have heard that Buckley “caved in” to the neocons and that he was “purged” by the neocons. I wish I could (authoritatively) resolve this contradiction.

#29 Comment By Rossbach On February 5, 2019 @ 8:37 pm

For another side of William F. Buckley, Jr’s career, see Paul Gottfried’s essay, “The Logic of Conservative Purges (Rethinking William F. Buckley’s Quest for ‘Respectability’).” It explains the mechanisms behind Conservatism, Inc.

#30 Comment By Henry Clemens On February 6, 2019 @ 9:41 am

Searching the internet, I find that in the April 22nd 1914 edition of National Review, Sen. Rand Paul wrote about Wm. Buckley and foreign police:

With regard to the Iraq War, Buckley came to believe not only that it was a mistake but that it was not a “conservative” approach to foreign policy. In fact, in discussing foreign policy Buckley sounded quite the realist.

… in October 2005, Buckley was asked the following question: “Today we have a different kind of foreign policy. It’s called Wilsonian. And the premise of the Bush doctrine is that America must spread democracy because our national security depends on it. And America can spread democracy. It knows how. It can engage in nation building. This is conservative or not?”

Buckley responded: “It’s not at all conservative. It’s anything but conservative. It’s not conservative at all, inasmuch as conservatism doesn’t invite unnecessary challenges. It insists on coming to terms with the world as it is, and the notion that merely by affirming these high ideals we can affect highly entrenched systems.”
In a 2005 … Buckley said of conservatives who want to spread democracy, “The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous.”

In fact, according to Jeffrey Hart’s assessment, Buckley was quite strident in his belief that the Iraq War was inconsistent with conservatism. Hart wrote … that Buckley “saw it as a disaster and thought that the conservative movement he had created had in effect committed intellectual suicide” by uncritically supporting the war.
As for neoconservatives, … “I think those I know, which is most of them, are bright, informed, and idealistic, but that they simply overrate the reach of U.S. power and influence.”
Buckley discussed neoconservatives two years later and said the following: “The neoconservative hubris, which sort of assigns to America some kind of geo-strategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country.”

#31 Comment By The Dean On February 6, 2019 @ 10:46 am

This was a nice article. I used to watch Firing Line every week and I read most of his non-fiction books. His ability to probe and ask profound questions and insist on logical answers without losing his focus was extraordinary. His Christmas interviews with Malcolm Muggeridge and all of the Mortimer Adler interviews are priceless.

#32 Comment By Oakinhouston On February 6, 2019 @ 11:20 am

“Solid prediction! People have been saying it for 2,000 years or so. Bound to be right one of these times, right?”

So we are about halfway between the first and the last temple built to worship Ra.

#33 Comment By Frank Healy On February 6, 2019 @ 11:57 am

Was anyone, ever, more of a “moral relativist” than Buckley?

The drugs, the young men swimming naked on his yacht, the changes in principles over the years? I think WFB was closer to Allen Ginsberg than many realize, even now.

Seriously, this is the silliest piece the TAC has ever published.

#34 Comment By MJR On February 6, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

Thanks to the author for posting this article.
Buckley represents a time where there was actual intellectual thought in our political process,something that has been disappearing in right wing media and increasingly on the left also.Yes,someone needs to pickup where Buckley left off. Volunteers anyone ?

#35 Comment By bt On February 6, 2019 @ 8:47 pm

Yes, the good old days before Republicans were lobotomized by talk radio and Fox News.

The current Republican voter (AKA conservative) would listen to someone like Buckley for 10 seconds and change the channel. All the long words and book learning are not where your voters are today. Trump was perfectly suited to appeal to this current GOP base with his uniquely anti-intellectual personality and fantasy based reasoning.

Sooner or later Fox News and that whole eco-system needs to be dealt with. While you were all penning high-minded articles about Buckley and Ludwig von Mises, Fox and Trump have been giving your folks Bread and Circuses, and it turns out everyone loves the Bread and Circuses. Pizzagate, Qanon, birthers, Vince Foster, inforwars, FEMA Camps, Death Panels, Agenda 21, False Flag Attacks, Scalia Murder, Seth Rich, I can’t even begin to list it all – it is now a decades-long mental condition. It is profoundly anti-intellectual and Buckley would wretch at what has become of his project, and he would especially wretch at someone like Trump – boorish, stupid, uncurious and inarticulate. The precise opposite of the sort that Buckley would expect to lead this Country.

I’m no fan of Buckley but I sure wish today’s conervatives were more like him and a lot less like Donald Trump.

One has to ask, what does come after Trump? Pretend it never happened? How do you reel the voters back in after Trump gave them “the full dose” and they loved it?

#36 Comment By Ed On March 10, 2019 @ 10:54 am

Buckley came along at the right moment, and he was the right fit for that moment. Television was a new medium and it craved acceptance from the cultural elite (or at least a respite from the high culture’s contempt). And there was a high culture back then that was confident about its own value, however much it might despair of the rest of the country.

There were fewer television networks, so if you made it on to the tube, you’d be far more famous than you would be today. Novelists like Mailer, Capote, and Vidal became household words. David Susskind became more of an icon than Charley Rose or Christiane Amanpour. Johnny Carson and Jack Paar were far better-known than Colbert or Meyers.

Today the media landscape is too fragmented. Nobody gets to be that big anymore. And it doesn’t crave the cultural patina that Buckley could provide.

About Buckley’s character: The impression I’m getting is that everybody in public life has skeletons in their closet, things they’ve done that they aren’t proud of, or things that they did that seemed justifiable at the time but are now indefensible. That impression is exaggerated of course, but to say someone did something or said something at some point and that entirely invalidates everything else they may have thought or said may be a little too severe.

I can see the man’s faults. They become more apparent with time. But he was in the arena, wrestling with many difficult, treacherous issues, and mistakes and miscalculations were inevitable. Still, I don’t believe Buckley’s legacy was wholly negative.