U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Early Thoughts On The Passing Of William F. Buckley

Because of the subject matter we address here, it would be remiss not to note the passing of William Francis Buckley, Jr. Obituaries are available here and here, so I’ll try and offer something different—something related to my background and interests.

Personality-wise, I found much to admire in Buckley. His air of erudition and evident articulateness never failed to impress. If impressions are half the battle, then many of his intellectual and political engagements were over before they started. It’s no accident that he found admirers in the Reagan White House, as noted in Douglas Martin’s NYT obituary.

In researching the history of the great books idea, my focus on Mortimer Adler allowed me the pleasure of watching numerous episodes where he appeared on Firing Line. Since most of these appearances occurred when I was an adolescent, I missed them, as well as most of the show’s heyday. Mine was not a politically engaged or informed family in general, and even my conservative grandfather was not connected with Buckley’s line of thinking. The conservative movement is not monolithic, after all.

Adler’s appearances on Firing Line were energetic. Although many today think of, or remember, Adler as a cultural conservative, politically he was a New Deal liberal through and through. So while Buckley admired Adler’s populist philosopher schtick, they differed on their applications of certain trains of philosophical thought. Many, many episodes contain a familiar refrain:

1. Adler is invited to appear because Buckley admired Adler’s newest book (and there were several in the 1980s);
2. After a thoroughly complimentary introduction, Buckley throws Adler a softball about the book—usually related to why Adler chose such and such topic;
3. Adler discourses for a bit, with some friendly banter, then Buckley slowly but surely works in a conservative theme. In many ways, it was amazing to watch Buckley take Adler’s thought and methodically look for ideological common ground.
4. Adler would then dodge and parry particular applications. Almost never did a particular politicians name come up.
5. Then the moderator (I forget his name, but can clearly see his face in my mind—youngish guy, a bit more particular than Buckley on topics) would ask Adler questions, with Buckley chiming in for clarifications.

Almost all of the transcripts and tapes of Adler’s appearances on Firing Line are available through Stanford’s Hoover Institution Library and Archives. I watched nearly all of these episodes in the late winter and spring of 2006. It was fun. If I could suggest any to review, it would be episode numbers 193 and SO777.

Number 193 is from 1970 and involves Adler obliquely discussing two of his then current books, The Time of Our Lives and The Common Sense of Politics. Subject matter aside, it was fun to watch Buckley as an on-the-rise TV personality and Adler as a sage, curmudgeonly figure lamenting the state of higher education and youth culture. This was the first of what would be seventeen encounters on the show.

This episode reveals Buckley’s admiration for what the great books idea represented, to him at least: liberal learning, tradition, respect, engagement with larger and deeper ideas, articulateness, and high culture. I recall the first part of the show being a substantial recounting of Adler’s history as related to the great books idea’s development at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

Number SO777 was taped in 1988, and covers Adler’s reactions to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. By this time Buckley and Adler are quite familiar with each other. In this episode, Adler blisters Bloom—and Buckley doesn’t speak up much in Bloom’s defense. It was almost as if Buckley allowed, or wanted, Adler on the show for just such a purpose. Of course the irony here is that the 1970 show consisted of Adler and Buckley lamenting the actions and directions of college students per the 1960s.

Both episodes reveal the arc of the times in both Adler and Buckley’s lives. They provide a sense of the decades in which the opinions of both still mattered. By 1988, of course, Buckley’s national importance far eclipsed Adler’s, but the former showed still a great deal of respect for latter. It seems to me that with Adler, Buckley found a moderate liberal that he could both respect and appreciate. And for Adler, I think the Buckley resembled somewhat the personality of Hutchins. Adler’s straightforward, blunt style contrasted nicely with Buckley’s wit and charm, not unlike Robert Hutchins.

Other reflections will follow, but this is my experience with William F. Buckley in the context of U.S. intellectual and cultural history. – TL

PS: Many clips of Buckley’s programs can be viewed via RealMedia at this link. Unfortunately, none of those episodes involve Adler. I requested today that the two I indicated above be made into digital clips. – TL

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a great post, Tim.

    One thing about Buckley that needs to be pointed out is that his ideas often had unsavory consequences. Buckley’s conservatism was recalcitrant in resisting black civil rights. This gets to the issue of intellectual history that we were talking about a while back. To talk about his philosophical positions in the abstract, without looking at the practical policy positions that he endorsed, makes his ideas seem much more reasonable. When conservatism translates into an endorsement of continued white supremacy, as Buckley’s did, then it looks a lot less reasonable.

  2. David,

    Your caution is duly noted. Upon reading the NYT obituary, I was aghast at Buckley’s opposition to some of the particulars of the civil rights movement. Since I’m unfamiliar with Buckley’s corpus and his philosophical positions, I suppose there could be some abstract legal argument behind that opposition, but methinks not. I suspect it was reactionary at hear but with an intellectual veneer. In any case, Buckley didn’t seem concerned with social justice, but rather with defending the individual (particularly rich ones) from state redistribution—no matter how just the cause behind redistribution. For all the trumping of Buckley’s Catholicism, he seemed rather un-Catholic in his opposition to justifiable social change.

    Again, this is me speaking based on impressions rather than hard archival work or intimate knowledge of Buckley’s corpus. I reserve the right to be mistaken.

    – TL

  3. It’s too bad Buckley is no longer with us to correct David Sehat’s use of the word “recalitrant.” In fact, Buckley publicly expressed regret over his (and his magazine’s) opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and said he should have supported it. See Sam Tanenhaus in the “Paper Cuts” blog of the New York Times.

  4. Dear Russ,
    I was going to post a response, but then I realized that Timothy Noah said everything that I had wanted to say. Check out this link:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2185301/

    I think it is revealing how embedded Buckley’s defense of white supremacy was to the larger ideas that he never gave up: states’ rights, the rights of business from governmental intrusion, and the defense of civilization and authority over democracy.

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