SIX YEARS AFTER his death by oesophageal cancer, you still hear an awful lot about the brilliant Christopher Hitchens, the various descriptions of whom––journalist, public intellectual, ‘drink-sodden popinjay’––could probably fill this page. You hear far less about the equally prolific and many-faced journalist who gave Hitchens his first appearance on television. To a Brit the name William F. Buckley, Jr. might not ring any bells. He never ‘broke’ the United Kingdom in the sense that Hitch ‘broke’ the U.S., despite his having gone to school in England for a period and having an affectionate relationship with Margaret Thatcher. Across the Pond, however, he was a household name known equally for founding the conservative weekly National Review before his thirtieth birthday and for his long tenure as the host of the combative public affairs talk show Firing Line. WFB, as he was sometimes called, energised a sluggish American right-wing through the fusion of laissez-faire economics and anti-communism, the culmination of which was the election of Ronald Reagan in ’81. The American conservative historian George H. Nash calls Buckley ‘arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century’–not a small feat by any means, considering the competition.
The American conservative historian George H. Nash calls Buckley ‘arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century’–not a small feat by any means, considering the competition.
Buckley’s weekly columns for National Review, not solely on the political issues of the day but on subjects as eclectic as his love of peanut butter and his distaste for rock music, are collected in the sizeable Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations, which traces nearly sixty years of Buckley’s writing from the mission statement of the first issue of his magazine through to the articles that made him something like Republican kingmaker. We see, too, Buckley in his various guises: the ideologue, the anti-communist, the staunch Roman Catholic and the devoted friend. Some of the book’s best entries, in fact, are his affectionate obituaries for various members of his diverse social circle from Princess Grace of Monaco to the liberal-turned-conservative novelist John Dos Passos.
At its best Buckley’s distinct writing style, which reflects in almost every sentence his love of archaic and unusual words and passive-voice constructions, has a musical quality. The tone of that writing is nearly always cheerful and often playful; Buckley’s zest for life was, in fact, a large part of what made him the ‘Saint Paul of the conservative movement’, to quote Best of Enemies: he made conservatism ‘cool’––something which, and I’m sure conservatives would agree, it isn’t called often. Buckley’s passion can be felt in many of his columns, on skiing or Bach or sailing, for example, and it’s very difficult not to feel a sort of personal relationship with the man himself, in that curious way you will often do with a certain columnist or novelist, long before you finish the book. (That, by the way, is regardless of whatever you might think of the many opinions he articulates throughout). When Buckley’s writing is bad, however, it’s really very bad. There are sentences so confused and pretentious that they wouldn’t so much cause Orwell to roll over in his grave but to spring out, come back to life and promptly kill himself again. But these sentences are quite rare, and usually buried deeply in passages which otherwise sparkle with wit and energy regardless of whether the subject is the latest perceived sin of liberalism, his love for skiing or The Beatles, who Buckley wasn’t particularly fond of. ‘An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience,’ wrote Buckley in 1964. ‘The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win.’ It’s to the credit of editors Roger Kimball and Linda Bridges that the collection reads so well. The pair choose a rich variety of Buckley’s columns and separate his various dispatches into topics such as ‘The Cold War at Home’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’.
‘An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience,’ wrote Buckley in 1964. ‘The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win.’
Buckley, you might have seen, has once again been in the news over the past year. The first time it was due to the release of Best of Enemies, the excellent documentary about Buckley’s televised debates with Gore Vidal during the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 1968. The second, memorably (and amusingly), when then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump, apparently unaware that Buckley had written in less than favourable terms for National Review about the possibility of his one day running for president, claimed he would have had his backing. For those interested in politics or recent American history, Athwart History is something you simply have to read, and a worthy addition to two other essay collections produced by eloquent and witty polemicists: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens and State of the Union by Buckley’s long-time nemesis, Gore Vidal.