Tibor R. Machan
William F. Buckley, Jr., has died, at age 82. I want to reflect a bit on
him because he was the persons whose writing awoke in me my political
In 1960 or 61 I was in the US Air Force, stationed at Andrews Air Force
Base, near Washington, D.C., and among the many more or less serious
reading materials I ran across an article by Mr. Buckley in Esquire
magazine. It was titled, “Why Don’t We Complain.” Its thesis, advanced by
means of a couple of anecdotes, was that when people fail to speak up
about matters that amiss, they get all pent up and eventually lose their
cool. Like when they tolerate fuzzy pictures at a theater instead of
getting up to ask that they be repaired right away; or when a railroad car
is overheated and no one complains but then when the conductor comes
around he gets mobbed.
This was, of course, a fairly lightweight analysis of one of the sources
of revolution. I found it right on the money. I read the piece while
flying west and immediately penned a short note of congratulation and sent
it to the offices of National Review. I also decided to subscribe to that
magazine, although by then I knew I was not quite a conservative.
Buckley replied to my note and we began a correspondence that had lasted
for many decades. When I once asked why he makes use of such erudite
vocabulary in making his points, he said that the folks who need
convincing are the erudite ones. We argued about God and about whether
Ayn Rand had philosophical and literary merits. I was very annoyed with
his repeated publication of an essay, in which he claimed that Rand’s
first best seller, The Fountainhead, is popular because of the
“fornicating bits,” which was quite silly as well as false.
In time I managed to get invited to appear on Firing Line, his long
running interview program on PBS TV, where I was very well treated and
pitted against one of Mr. Buckley’s favorite intellectuals, Ernest van den
Haag, who became a friend until his death a few years ago at age 86.
At the time when I appeared on Firing Line, I also interviewed Buckley for
Reason magazine, which had a short history of interviews with prominent
men and women concerned about the free society—Nathaniel Branden, F. A.
Hayek, Thomas Szasz, Edith Efron, Yale Brozen, Milton Friedman, Paul Craig
Roberts and James Buchanan were some others whom I and others at Reason
managed to interview for the magazine.
One of Buckley’s most impressive performances occurred at the Cambridge
Union, in England, where he debated John Kenneth Galbraith, who was an old
adversary as well as close friend of his. In this debate Buckley came off
as a dedicated individualist (and trounced Galbraith good and hard). And
that to me was more important than some of his more conservative notions,
so despite the fact that I found a good deal of what he wrote difficult to
take, I remained a fan.
Once when I visited Buckley at National Review’s offices, I noticed that
while all dressed up in black tie, his fly was open, so I pulled him aside
to let him know. He was very thankful and we had a nice laugh about it
all. This was in line with his mainly gracious and jovial personality.
American conservatives are not like others who simply embrace a method of
reasoning about public affairs, namely, to consult tradition and be guided
by it. That is unprincipled. American conservatism is tied to the ideas
of the Founders. Buckley was indeed an American conservative. He did, in
my view, combine his loyalty to the Founders with some infelicitous
convictions but he must be credited with fostering a long overdue post-New
Deal awareness of what America is really about, namely, the rights and
sovereignty of the individual human being. I will forever be grateful to
him for that.