The Screwtape Columns

by Henry Fairlie | February 9, 1986

Right Reason 

By William F. Buckley, Jr.

edited by Richard Brookisher

(Doubleday, 454 pp., $19.95)

On the cover of this latest collection of William Buckley's newspaper columns is the photograph (presumably he had a say in selecting it) of a man ill at ease with himself, looking out on the world as if from a battlement, fearing that some blow must fall from an unexpected quarter. The head is held taut, hunched back on his shoulders, as if it had once been severed, sewn back on, and can be moved now only stiffly, as in fact he moves it on television. The chin juts forward—the cut of the jib, as yachtsmen say—in defiance more than in strength. I dare you, find my weakness! The mouth, otherwise sensual, is set mum; the corners fall away expressionless. This is a man, one would say. who needs to see his priest.

Yet Mr. Buckley is thought from his public appearances—which are all self presentations, in the lecture hall, on television, or in after dinner speeches—to be debonair, arrogant, cocksure, witty (always witty), in control equally of himself, of the stage, and of his antagonist. But even on those set occasions, he seldom seems relaxed, satisfied with the way he is, with the world as it is. He seems unable to enjoy even his leisure without making a point and n Kxik (usually with as much substance as a leaflet) out of it.

Mr. Buckley, one suspects, is a far unhappier man than he would like us to see; and since unhappiness is the condition with which the conservative must live, but one which the American conservative, being an American, will not set himself to face and find some way to master without illusion, Mr. Buckley ought to be a far more interesting man than he has allowed himself to become. He could have gone deeper

Winston Churchill, although he met life publicly with a zest hard to parallel in our times, suffered from lifelong, recurrent, deep depressions. Men of action often do; the action, though meant to subdue these moods, does not subdue them. Churchill called them his "black dog," which lopod, pad! pad! surely what tells is that he knew his black dog would never be gone. Mr. Buckley, I suspect, has a black dog. But we do not hear it pad in his writing. He tells us that he is not "good introspection," a dismissal so offhanded that one can hardly believe it was made. The result is that he is interesting not for what he has written, but for what he has not written; not for the conservative he claims to be, but for the conservative he is not; not for his facile gifts, always on display, but for his deserted, undernourished gifts.

 

In any history of our century long enough to spare a sentence for him, Mr. Buckley will be rightly praised for what he did in the 1950s, through both National Review and his individual efforts on university and college campuses to seek out, enthuse, and help organize young conservatives who are in many cases the leaders, junior officers, and even foot soldiers of today's conservative regime. Young Americans for Freedom, for example, owes a great deal to him; and cadres of young conservatives, inspired and assisted by him, grew as silently as a coral reef under the very noses of the reigning Democrats and liberals. Nobody can take that away from him.

Beyond that we have Mr. Buckley's magazine. In its early missionary days it was brash, often reckless, sometimes unscrupulous in argument, but at least it was interesting and significant. Now it is a thrown-together hodgepodge of stale attitudinizing and new mediocre argument, when it is not simply the Buckley family newsletter. The old National Review and the new have one thing in common, though: a capacity to be extremely unpleasant, especially in kicking a man when he is down.

Then there is Firing Line. I remember distinctly only one of its programs; the others have more or less passed away as television waffle. Buckley was talking to Malcolm Muggeridge, a late convert to religious faith in general and to Roman Catholicism in particular. Born and raised a Catholic, Mr. Buckley led Mr. Muggeridge, himself an agile debater, to many fences a Catholic should be able to take without much trouble; but more than once Mr. Muggeridge was straddled. The question pursued by Mr. Buckley was whether Mr. Muggeridge's faith was true, or whether he had sought faith merely for the reason most commonly used to justify it: that it would be good for Mr. Muggeridge and for society, much like a dose of salts. This was a Buckley from whom we hear too little. He was speaking and questioning from somewhere deeper than the glibness to which he is usually satisfied to reach. It seemed no accident that I sat listening to him and hardly to his guest, while the dusk fell in my room as it can do at evensong on an autumn afternoon.

So we come to his columns. The pickings in this collection come from seven years of Mr. Buckley's effusions, and since he and the editor presumably chose what they considered the best columns, the collection is a fairly damning commentary on the general standard. I do not know why journalists think it worth collecting these rags of ephemeral writing, some of them trivial even as they are written, certainly almost all of them trivial the day after they were first printed. (Of course there have been journalists such as Joseph Kraft who do not package their columns, though his deserved packaging more than most.) just how trivial they can be is illustrated in this volume by an ad hominem attack on me, notable mainly for its misinformation, inspired by a little column I wrote during the heat of the election campaign of 1980. Who cares? Mr. Buckley boasts that he spends 18 minutes on a column. It shows. He also boasts that he takes only two months to write a book; that shows, too.

It is more than a matter of taste that I cannot join the applause for Mr. Buckley's style, for its supposed elegance, urbanity, wit, variety, sophistication. There are not many stylists in American journalism or politics, and consequently those who seem to have mastered the art of writing a sentence with more than one clause, or turning a phrase, or using words of more than two syllables, are always overpraised. Mr. Buckley's trademark—his robot's use of words that few of us, 1 hope, think to use in ordinary speech—is worse than tiresome. Nothing is gained, for example, by the use of "mephitic" in discussing a review of one of his books, or of "anaphora" in a piece about Jesse Jackson's rhetoric. But one soon realizes that Mr. Buckley needs these crutches because he almost never finds the unexpected right word in the right place in his writing. The unexpected word (the coin particularly of the poet) is usually a common-and-garden one, a word we use every day. Almost never a fancy word, it stabs into our minds with meaning, and there it is likely to stay. But even if Mr. Buckley's self-consciously arcane words give some people a thrill, why is it that no one can remember them or their point a few days later? |

An example. Mr. Buckley describes Playboy as "an organ that seeks to justify the superordination of sex over any other consideration. . ." Apart from the fact that "superordination" tells us nothing that a simple word would not have done, it conceals—and, I believe, is intended to conceal—the fact that Mr. Buckley is saying the opposite of what is true. Playboy does not give a superior rank to sex above all other considerations. It diminishes and debases sex, reducing it to a valueless, mechanical, lifeless and altogether unimportant activity, which you can order up with your meal after a hard day at the office. But then if Mr. Buckley had found an accurate word, he would have had to say something that celebrated sex; and it is interesting that in his columns, as in the pronouncements of so many conservatives today, sex only raises its head when the subject is pornography or obscenity, or what is regarded as aberrant sexual behavior. These conservatives discuss sex only when they can get down and mix it in the gutter with the pimps.

Too often Mr. Buckley seems to shy away from any serious discussion of principles or ideas. Instead, he personalizes them. He is most comfortable attacking (usually snidely) his opponents and flattering (always excessively) his friends. This is the manner of talk show, or at best of dinner party conversation, where we do not expect to unfold ideas as in a Socratic dialogue. In conversation we use people as symbols of ideas, setting them up rather like ninepins, because conversation need such a shorthand; we can impatiently call someone, say, a fascist, confident that no one (unless there is a fool at dinner) will go away thinking that we really think he is a fascist. But if you transfer that manner to a column—which, I suppose, is what is likely to happen if you dictate it into a tape recorder while being driven somewhere in one of your cars—then it becomes unacceptable, in part because more care is needed when one cannot hear the inflection of a voice or see an expression on a face.

For example, I can imagine myself feeling provoked enough to refer in conversation to the representatives of Third World countries at the United Nations as "the little creeps." But use that phrase (as Mr. Buckley does) in print and it takes on an altogether different and very nasty character. What is more, if writing is intended to force one to strive for accuracy, he probably means not that they are little creeps but that they are much worse.

Again, did Mr. Buckley really mean to write that Jesse Jackson is "the greatest political aphrodisiac since Martin Luther King, Jr."? Not only is the phrase by now tired, drained of all power even to titillate—it certainly is not an aphrodisiac—but only three pages before Mr. Buckley differentiated Jackson from King, saying that he could claim to be continuing "Martin Luther King's dream." In this same piece, he describes Jackson's appeal to the self-consciousness of American blacks (as blacks) as "this exuberant tribalism." Of course one can see the temptation to speak that into the tape recorder; hut apart from the fact that it is a wholly false metaphor, most of us, if tempted to use it, would realize that it parries more than a hint that we still think of American blacks as just down from the trees.

Another of Mr. Buckley's personalizing devices directly reflects the manner of the talk show. Again and again he sets up his opponents as straw and then takes potshots at them, in one of Mr. Buckley's columns in 1981, A. Bartlett Giamatti, then the president of Yale, is not simply criticized for what he said about the Moral Majority. He is set up at the start not As someone who is putting forward an argument, but as someone who "fulminates in the big leagues," someone who can be put down by asking of him, "what on Earth is exciting Mr. Giamatti?" (His column attacking me also began by saying that I was overexcited about the Moral Majority.)

The flattery of his friends and allies, of editors and others in the media who can assist in the promotion of his own celebrity, is not only embarrassing and tedious (and often unbelievably coy for someone over 17) it also has the effect of diminishing them to tools and reflections of his own lust for stardom. He and John Kenneth Galbraith have for a long time been doing a song-and-dance act together, teasing each other like flirtatious ten-year-olds, lifting their skirts and opening their flies to show what is underneath; there is more of that in the columns in this collection. ("Professor Galbraith has a nice wisecrack—as one would expect, self-serving . . ."; Galbraith to Buckley: "Out of friendship and a well-known ability to corrupt, I am concealing your whole relationship with Waugh." Why don't they just go out on the school playground and pull each other's braids?) But when they use their skittishness to suggest that each symbolizes a serious political position, then another diminishment takes place, as even their own ideas are made subservient to their mutual infatuation and self-promotion.

As in National Review (and not only in Buckley's signed column, but in the awful feature that purports to carry samples of his own correspondence), and as in the books about his own way of life, the dominant note in these columns is the unceasing "I . . . I. . . I. . . me . . . me . . . me . . . " The "Introductory Epilogue" of 22 pages about the reception of the hardback edition of Overdrive is a piece of self-puffery that tells us nothing about any of its alleged subjects: writing, or magazine editing, or publishing, or reviewing. It tells us only that his book got some attention (even if it was critical) from a number of celebrities whose names he has the chance to drop. But the most elaborate section of this piece is the toadying to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, who now and then adds to Mr. Buckley's self-esteem and celebrity by serializing his books. An effort to camouflage the toadying is made by using very characteristic and heavy-handed hyperbole: "I would do anything for Mr. Shawn save joining the Communist Party." (What if Mr. Shawn asked him to do a hatchet job on Mr. Galbraith?) "If St. Peter had declared me unfit to enter the Kingdom of God, I could not have felt more searingly the reproach" from Mr. Shawn that he misuses the comma.

Through it all, what we are given is the world as seen by the media, and that distorted picture as seen by a celebrity who adores being in the talk shows. McCarthyism is discussed through his account of his own contribution to a BBC radio documentary; hard pom through his appearance on the Merv Griffin show; Russian propaganda through his experience on "Nightline"; and so on and so on, including his own experiences in flying here, there, and everywhere, and above all his encounters with other celebrities. He can't even write about peanut butter without dragging in Auberon Waugh, the kind of Brit writer who is always fashionable among the American fashionable: "I introduced Auberon Waugh to cashew butter. . . . It quite changed his writing style." It's this, not peanut butter, that makes one sick.

What does this besotted search for celebrity, for being known by those who are known and advertising that he is known by them, leave of the conservative? Here one comes to the most interesting point of all. There are Americans who eccentrically believe that William F. Buckley is an aristocrat; whether he believes it or not, he does nothing to discourage the image. But an aristocrat would be as unlikely to fraternize with the media as he would be to write a personal letter on a word processor. What is more, an aristocrat takes to his estate and stays there, and grumbles even if called to London twice a year for an important vote in the Lords. He is rooted like an oak, in his daily life and in his conception of his place in things.

But Mr. Buckley is forever on the move, forever active, forever in flight (with seven heavy suitcases for him and his wife). Cruising Speed, Atlantic HighOverdrive: these are not accidental titles for the books about his life. Mr. Buckley, like almost all American conservatives, needs to learn to sit still. Then he might contemplate, which is the true activity of the conservative. Unlike the liberal or the socialist or the reformer, the conservative does not believe that the sun can be made to shine every day, or that every century can be improved over its predecessor. He knows that mankind can slip back as well as go forward.

Mr. Buckley has disappointed us since his youthful brilliance—surely he must have hauntingly disappointed himself—by never giving himself the time to sit still. Indeed, his restlessness seems to have grown more agitated with age, as if he is trying to preserve or rediscover that irretrievable youth. In the end the restlessness speaks of routlessness. Return to the picture on the cover. It is not the face of a rooted man, freed at least from one anxiety.

William F. Buckley represents, in the end, the rich and the intelligentsia newly incarnated as The Masses, just as Ortega y Gasset said they would be. The rich prole, the prole rich—they are The Masses in our time, not the gas station attendant: restless and rootless, with nothing left in them to resist the mass media. They succumb to the celebrity that is all, in place of fame, that The Masses are willing to confer as a reward, a self-defeating reward, as fickle as The Masses themselves. Look at Mr. Buckley and read him: there stands the quintessential Common Man of our age.

Henry Fairlie was a British political journalist and social critic. He was a contributor to The New RepublicThe AtlanticThe SpectatorThe Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many other papers and magazines. He is the author of, most recently, Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books-and-arts/75064/the-screwtape-columns