Originally published: 2000
477 pages
Chapter 20


William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley, Jr., scion of American conservative thinking and action, began his political quest while a college undergraduate in the late 1940s. He eventually blossomed into the movement's preeminent spokesperson and activist. His career spanned more than five decades of political change, most all of it for the better. Hardly any part of modern American reality failed to come under Buckley's historical, philosophical, fiscal, or social scrutiny-or failed to elicit his distinctive commentary-sometimes acerbic, often witty, always refined.
     Let Us Talk of Many Things, one of more than forty books that Buckley wrote or edited, contains many of his speeches, beginning with one from his senior year at Yale in 1949 and culminating with his address at the Heritage Foundation's twenty-fifth anniversary dinner in 1999. Between the book's opening acknowledgments and the final note of thanks appear too many insights, observations, and historical lessons to recount in this brief overview in any significant way. The value here is in Buckley's knowledge, paired with his experience and his stark moral foundations, that bring all of us a little closer to wisdom. His speeches are also a succinct history of the second half of the twentieth century's most important political moments. Buckley applied theory to fact in these talks and his statements encompassed sharp consideration of policy choices.
     Readers have repeated opportunities to savor Buckley's best didactic technique, which is to simplify, to melt things down to their basics, and to start at the beginning-well before where the other fellow wants to begin. The simplicity of Buckley's approach is reflected in his remarks


on former President Bill Clinton's minimizing of the need for or value of honesty in response to being caught in his White House liaisons which resulted in his depositional lies and the exposure of his failure of character:

               If what he has done is trivial, then much of what we think of as the
               infrastructure of civil society is also trivial, our commitments to truth,
               to the processes of justice, to the sanctity of oaths.

     Buckley notes nearly everything of significance in his career in this volume-including some of his mistakes. Early in his philosophical journey he spoke strongly of the domino theory of geopolitical relations, thus discounting the will of individuals to act for themselves when their lives were, literally and figuratively, at stake. He wanted to isolate the U.S.S.R. in a fashion that did not take into account that country's power. But his very public moral and factual jibes at Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's U.S. visit in 1960 were a perfect counter-point to the obsequies laid in Khrushchev's path by an alternately fearful and fawning coterie of press and politicians.
     Buckley understood more than do most people in or outside of public life and he isn't afraid to take a position. He willingly observed that he was not perfect over the years, that some of his
pronouncements and actions may today seem to have been ill-formed. But such instances pale before the many times when Buckley's affirmations and critical eye have been tellingly accurate, as history has proven.
     Buckley offers a special derision for the liberal penchant of not asking people to take care of themselves, and then insisting, as if they never needed to inquire in the first place, that the government knows better how they should be taken care of anyway. Buckley observes that such condescension is not only arrogance of thought and action but also undermines the building of self-confidence in both individuals and the public. This goes on to harm self-esteem, the primary ingredient in getting people to think and act for themselves.
     Buckley argues that our concern for deficiencies in America must not cause us to censure the principles that have allowed our country-its faults notwithstanding-to tower over the nations of the world as a citadel of freedom and progress. He often reprises this theme, noting that no individual imperfection in our society-a bad law, a bad foreign policy, a bad social experiment, a bad elected or appointed official, or


just a misunderstanding of how to apply American principles to real life-should result in a wholesale indictment of the system. In investigating these aberrations Buckley falls back on rational assessment to determine what went wrong: "Reason may not save us," he avers, "but an absence of reason assures failure." To be sure, Buckley always ties his reason to experience-his is not the utopian version untethered to facts.
     With his greatest display of vehemence, Buckley demeans "facile universalist ideas" in a world where the individual (not the state, not the "public good," not the general will) is the only common denominator. These speeches reflect Buckley's strongly negative appraisal of how big social agglomerations, especially government, tend to discount or ignore small ones, and individuals. Buckley believes that only specious policy is created using the fallacy that the good of the many should overcome the dignity of the individual. Such ideas and others like them are destructive of the essentials of our freedom. Buckley always seeks to bring his audience back to the simple understanding that each person counts in a manner that cannot begin to be reflected in collectivist government action. And when he notes,

               It is the general disintegration of a shared understanding of the meaning
               of the world and our place in it that made American liberalism possible,
               and American conservatism inevitable.

he was simply observing in a broad manner the erosion of principle that always starts with a small decline. When the decline becomes too big, then ideas reassert themselves.
     When it comes to the world stage, Buckley shows both his wisdom and his commitment to freedom. As the Korean War Memorial notes, in chiseled stone, "Freedom Is Not Free" Buckley is in the first ranks of those who know we have to be willing to pay a price to keep the freedom that has been established through the American experience-at such great cost. He echoes an old truth, enunciated by George Washington in his initial state of the union address, but which traces back to Aristotle:

               We seek not to start a war but to avoid war, and the surest way to avoid
               war is by asserting our willingness to wage it.

     Buckley occasionally quotes Trotsky and notes that the communist who was axed to oblivion said, "If you wish to lead a quiet life, you


picked the wrong century to be born in." To the betterment of America, and the world of ideas, Buckley was both born into and relished the twentieth century. He most assuredly did not choose to lead a quiet life.
     Turn to any page of this book or read any speech and you will encounter something worthwhile. It may be something entirely new to you or something familiar made to be seen in a novel light. In any case it will be interesting. Buckley is especially adept at blowing up the "common wisdom" or "universal recognition" by reciting facts and figures conveniently forgotten by those creating the myths of the good of the group-those who champion big government. Buckley always makes his audiences think. His speeches still stimulate today's readers to contemplate the history of the last seventy-five years, the lessons we've learned and the past we dare not forget.

               We shall seek the truth and endure its consequences.

This terse principle is Buckley's guiding light-and should be ours as well. Its first part is easy to contemplate. Buckley's opponents in public debate usually came to a special understanding of its second part.

About the Author
William F. Buckley, Jr. was born in New York City in 1925 and raised in Connecticut. He attended Yale University and sparred with American liberals continually from his undergraduate days until his death in 2008. In 1955, he established and for the next thirty-five years served as editor of National Review, one of America's preeminent conservative publications. He was one of the founders of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), formed in response to the liberal agenda of the 1960s. From 1966 to 1999 he hosted Firing Line, a program devoted to intellectual give-and-take that was television's longest-running show. He authored more than forty books of political commentary, autobiography, fiction, and philosophy. His thousands of speeches and less formal talks promoted his aim of getting people to think, then act. From 1962 until his death he wrote a column titled On the Right, syndicated in more than three hundred newspapers, where he attempted to make sense of the political and economic life of this country and of the world. Wrote the New York Times, "His most inimitable pieces are those that skewer the people he doesn't like, of whom there is no shortage."

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