William F. Buckley's biographer remembers him

Yet the key to Buckley is to understand that he was a rebel, but not a heretic. He fancied himself and his politics to be anti-establishment, yet he was part of the American establishment against which he rebelled. He never went so far as to be cast out, or to attempt to be cast out…

What was true on a political level was also true on a personal level. Many of Buckley’s best friends were liberals like John Kenneth Galbraith. He got along famously with Norman Mailer, with whom he debated frequently during the 1960s. When I was writing his biography, I was always puzzled by this side of Buckley, and after I had done a draft, I hold him that I couldn’t figure out how the young Buckley, who as a teenager was pretty insufferable and not well-liked, became a man of such wide-ranging and close friendships. I had gone through Buckley’s papers at Yale, which trace his political career, but at that point, he gave me a stack of letters that he had written to his mother and sisters when he was in the army at Fort Benning at the end of World War II.

What I found in those letters was a clue to the mystery that is Bill Buckley. When he was at officer’s training school, Buckley, who was only 18 at the time, couldn’t get by on his good grades and brilliance, and found himself not only disliked, but on the verge of being flunked out of officer candidates’ school. In the letters he wrote, Buckley revealed a fear and anguish about his place in the world and how people thought of him. He got his commission, but he also learned that he had to leaven his own political and intellectual convictions with a tolerance for people who didn’t share them. He would sometimes condemn their views, but he would not condemn them. By the time he arrived at Yale, he was pretty much the Buckley whom we’ve known for the last sixty years–witty, arrogant, but always with a certain restraint, even at times a gentleness and consideration. And I think that same sense of limits and boundaries–a sense of how far he could and couldn’t go–affected the way he conducted himself politically.

Read it all.


Posted in * Culture-Watch