Cheerfully disagreeable, with no time for bigots


William F. Buckley, Jr. once wrote a letter to the King of England, scolding him for not paying off his country’s World War I debt to the U.S. He was 6 years old at the time.

He started building his national reputation only a year after graduating from Yale with honors — by writing a scathing critique of he education he got there — with his first book, “God and Man at Yale.”

The cheerfully irrepressible conservative commentator went on to author some 50 more books, write a newspaper column, host a television program, and found the conservative journal National Review. His collected papers weigh seven tons. They were donated to — where else? — Yale.

Bill Buckley died nearly ten years ago, but in this period of heightened partisan politics, with neo-Nazis and white supremacists figuring prominently in the news, he is a man to be remembered. Not for his political convictions which, to his delight in the hereafter, intelligent people will continue to argue about, but for his approach to politics.

“His categories were not right and left but right and wrong. What graces he had to change a century came by his belief in Christ, who has changed all centuries,” Father George W. Rutler, the homilist, said at a memorial Mass for Buckley at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 2008.

Among the mourners at that Mass was one of Buckley’s closest friends, former Democratic senator and 1972 presidential nominee George McGovern.

Buckley also counted as friends many others whose views were far removed from his own, such as economist John Kenneth Galbraith, newspaper columnist Murray Kempton, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, activist Allard K. Lowenstein and ACLU head Ira Glasser.

Buckley did not equate his conservative political views with a political party. (National Review’s sighing endorsement of Eisenhower was “We prefer Ike.”) He was concerned with ideas and arguments, not party lines. Alvin S. Felzenberg in his book about Buckley, “A Man and His Presidents,” states that he believed his greatest achievement was purging from the conservative movement anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, bigots and racists. He condemned the John Birch Society, used his magazine to diminish the work of author Ayn Rand; called out George Wallace as “a dangerous man”; and criticized fellow conservative Pat Buchanan for what he perceived as anti-Semitism.

Buckley was not ahead of his time on several issues, including civil rights. But, at the height of the civil rights revolution he “sensed a tension between the institutional segregation that had been part of his southern-reared parents’ world and his deep Catholic faith,” writes Felzenberg. “Doubts he had developed over the rightness of positions he had held for years caused him both to change his views and regret that he had not done so earlier.”

Christopher Buckley, who always referred to his father as “Pup,” said he was “a man of devout, unflinching, sometimes exasperating Catholic faith.”

He wrote a remembrance of his father on the one-year anniversary of his death, and included the following anecdote:

“Years ago, he gave an interview to Playboy Magazine. Asked why he did this, he couldn’t resist saying, ‘In order to communicate with my 16-year-old son.’ At the end of the interview, he was asked what he would like for an epitaph and he replied, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth.’ Only Pup could manage to work the Book of Job into a Hugh Hefner publication.”

Carl Peters is the Star Herald managing editor.