|Originally published: 2000|
LET US TALK OF MANY THINGS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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