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William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008)

William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review and the most prominent conservative public intellectual of the modern era, passed away this morning. His son Christopher found him at his desk in Stamford. Through the course of his career, Buckley … Read More

By / February 27, 2008

William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review and the most prominent conservative public intellectual of the modern era, passed away this morning. His son Christopher found him at his desk in Stamford.

Through the course of his career, Buckley said and did many things that were reprehensible, including, most notably, offering crudely racist opposition to civil rights legislation (which he later repented), and giving demagogic support to Francisco Franco and assorted other clerico-fascist dictators (which he never repented).

Much like Barry Goldwater, Buckley became more interesting and heterodox the older he got, and went some way to confirming that his earlier belief in states' rights had at least something to do with a (misdirected) belief in individual liberty, when he signed on to the cause of drug legalization.

W.H. Auden's elegy for W.B. Yeats contains a fitting send-off for Buckley:

Time that is intolerant Of the brave and innocent, And indifferent in a week To a beautiful physique, Worships language and forgives Everyone by whom it lives; Pardons cowardice, conceit, Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse Pardoned Kipling and his views, And will pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons him for writing well.

The vast majority of Kipling's poetry is excruciatingly awful, but the occasions when he hit the mark more than justify his lasting place in the canon.

No one would accuse Buckley of being economical with words, and some of Buckley's writing is unbearably languorous and stale (I defy anyone to make it through his paean to sailing in the Atlantic several years ago without dozing off at least once). He simply had such a command of language — and reveled in the sheer joy of playing with language — that he would frequently enough allow his prose to become swollen with ill-conceived efforts at self-amusement. Yet for the cases where he could rein himself in and harness his wit and intelligence in the cause of good writing, he deserves the same pardon as Kipling. And of course, Firing Line did enough to elevate public political discourse (or at least slow its decline) to constitute an apologia for Buckley's life.

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