The Telling of the Truth: William F. Buckley’s Life in Letters

“It is always fascinating to watch people react to the telling of the truth,” wrote Bill Buckley in his first book, God and Man at Yale. It is equally interesting to watch people react to the passing of someone who told the truth. Not your truth or my truth. Not the truth as he saw it. Not the truth as best he knew it. Not the kind of truth that feels good today but is opposite to the wisdom of the ages and of the sages, both past and future, and thus destroys tomorrow. The simple truth; or, as Christian apologist and philosopher of history and culture Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying, true truth: about life and about eternity, as it is available to any honest mind. The truth of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, their grandparents, and their grandchildren – linguistically adorned, philosophically beatified, and internationally contextualized to tell a true story that properly placed the man on the street, his full human and spiritual dignity intact, into the drama of the life of the nation and the life of nations.

Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 50 names in the Boston phone book than by the entire Harvard faculty not because he wanted to be cute, but because he wanted to tell the truth.

It was the same kind of truth Buckley told about Yale in 1951 at the tender age of 25. By then he in his exceptional talents had already discerned that even, or perhaps especially, many in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League had developed a curious aversion to true truth. It is an aversion that has almost universally swallowed up American intellectuals, and which Buckley was providentially destined, singularly equipped, and, it seemed, inordinately pleased to battle his entire life.

Even by the standards of the most literate literati, his vocabulary was staggering. And he wielded it not in the pretentious, ostentatious manner in which the mainstream, “drive-by” media are prone to wield theirs in an attempt to justify, mainly to themselves, their right to occupy the august, influential post to which they have risen. Rather, he wielded his with the commanding ease of a man who knew God was bigger than he was, and who was thus less interested in the great words he knew than in the great ideas – indeed, the great ideological worlds – he knew lay behind the words, and less interested in glorifying himself than in, as he put it, standing athwart history crying, in all wise benevolence, “Stop!”

His humor was of a type that has become a bit of a hallmark in conservative circles: the kind that is less a positive creation for entertainment than an unavoidable adaptation to the telling of the truth and the negative or embarrassed reaction the truth engenders. When you repeatedly tell the truth, and that truth is not only repeatedly rejected, but repeatedly caricatured, studiously avoided, and, when the inevitable calamity arrives as a result, repeatedly blamed for having created the calamity, one develops a certain modestly self-aggrandizing humor that every genuine conservative recognizes and that no such conservative begrudges another. So Buckley, when asked why he tended to sit during his TV episodes of “Firing Line” and most other TV interviews: “It’s difficult to stand up under the weight of all I know.”

It’s not arrogance; it’s an attempt to advertise a healthy confidence in the truth in an age peopled by, as G. K. Chesterton once quipped, a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication tables.

His literary output was enormous, for a time almost single-handedly sustaining a post-war renaissance in conservative – that is, true – thought about God, man, Yale, society, state, and history. Like few others – his friend, the late Dr. Russell Kirk, did something notably similar – he put words, ideas, and history behind and around the thoughts, knowledge, emotions, convictions, hopes, and political visions of millions of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers who sensed in the latter half of 20th century the rise of an aggressive totalitarian ideology that was finding a weaker and weaker United States, and a weaker and weaker spiritual, moral, and political backbone in the West, as its only meaningful world opposition.

The talk in the last week about Buckley as a defender of a more urbane, sophisticated, polished, and agreeable brand of conservatism than that to which we – sigh – are now condemned in the wake of his death is mere media kerfuffle. It is the kind of talk that comes from people not substantive enough to know what to say when an authentically great man passes. When Ronald Reagan passed, we heard much the same sort of thing from people who had spent their entire public careers criticizing, caricaturing, slandering, and opposing him. Now that he’s gone, what fond memories we have of him! What a better sort of conservatism he stood for! What dignity, what learnedness, what charity, what disagree-without-calling-your-opponents-names know-how he had! If only we had more like him!

The move is mendacious: a back-handed way of insulting those conservatives – that is, truth tellers – who remain, with whom both Reagan and Buckley consorted and identified their entire lives, and with whom still resides the only authentic stewardship of the life and legacy of either man.

Then, of course, there are the polite but empty compliments from respectable, moderate folk: even if you didn’t agree with Buckley on everything, by God, at least you knew where he stood! Or, even if you didn’t agree with Buckley on everything, you had to admire his talents and passion on behalf of what he believed in! The point being not to praise Buckley for anything genuinely praiseworthy, but to, again in a back-handed way, partake oneself of the immediate trend among the fashionable – the thing one is really in a habit of caring about – of honoring the venerable dead without oneself having to do anything like what the venerable dead did to earn the honor. That is, pay one’s easy respects to the dead without having to agree that this particular dead took the risk of telling the truth; of doing it for a long time; of sacrificing the many lucrative and fashionable engagements that one is oneself angling for and which would have easily been his had he chosen that easier pathway through life; and of putting up with the marginalization and condemnation from enemies, and not infrequent abandonment by ostensible friends, that inevitably attend such a courageous career.

In short, one is offering polite courtesies without offering the one thing that would truly honor the venerable dead: a frank admission that he was right, and you were wrong to disagree with, publicly oppose, or maintain a convenient silence toward him and what he believed, and toward what his genuine friends and heirs still believe.

The modern conservative movement in America – and the movement conservatives who comprise it – recognize innately that Buckley’s influence will last as long as our movement does. Many of us not only grew up with faithful, interested parents who kept copies of National Review on their coffee tables and in toilet-side baskets, but we still now have dusty, closeted boxes full of back issues with cartoon caricatures of Al Gore on the cover and Buckley’s inimitable columns in the back.

Yes, if only we had more of him. Eagles flock not, but one day, if God is gracious, there will be another collegiate Elijah who arises with the kind of spirit to, before he is 30, take on an Ivy League establishment, a political establishment, a world of easy, empty, errant words, with the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker’s truth that man is made in the image of God, and that what has happened once in six thousand years – a Gentile nation consciously and publicly founded on that truth – is not likely to ever happen again.