Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE BUCKLEY PROSE STYLE...Andrew Sullivan on William F. Buckley:

I know we shouldn't speak ill of the dead — but am I the only person who found Buckley close to unreadable a lot of the time? I never read his fiction, but his nonfiction was packed [with] endless sentences, ridiculously long words, and meaning that sometimes took several reads to excavate. I don't know how many times I finished a Buckley column with the thought: what on earth was he trying to say?

Actually, that's often how I felt too, and it wasn't his vocabulary so much as it was his fondness for a veering, circuitous style that never quite seemed willing to stop poking around the edges of his ideas and finally stake out a position. But I only occasionally read his columns, and even that only recently. I always figured that maybe his writing just wasn't as sharp as it had been 20 or 30 years ago.

But maybe not. Was he always like that? Is this going to unleash an avalanche of people who take a deep breath and finally admit that they too had a hard time figuring out what Buckley was trying to say much of the time?

Kevin Drum 6:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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Buckley's columns always had a single subject, and it was always the same. "I am smarteh than you, bettah read, and have a fah moah extensive vocabulaeyy, donchaknow".

Posted by: POed Lib on February 28, 2008 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

"I know we shouldn't speak ill of the dead"...

maybe, but I found metafilter's recent front page post and comment thread on Buckley a satisfying tonic to the media BS of the past two days.

Posted by: Ty Lookwell on February 28, 2008 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

I always found Buckley's writing and speaking (especially on Cross Fire) to be intentionally obtuse. Rather than actually explaining his position, the point seemed to be to show that he was smarter than anyone else. It was an act I never bought.

Posted by: Outis on February 28, 2008 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

And of course that is very very very amusing, since he and others of the Burgundy-wine-sipping, Rolls-driving, yacht-owning, chauffeur-employing, trust-fund-baby conservative elite were always trying to pretend that they were common men.

Posted by: POed Lib on February 28, 2008 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

"Don't speak ill of the dead" seems to be an American thing; British newspapers are much more willing to attack recently deceased controversial people.

Posted by: Joe Buck on February 28, 2008 at 6:51 PM | PERMALINK

If I thought the guy had anything interesting to say, I might have given him a try. Still & all, he couldn't have been anywhere near as bad as Lewis Lapham is. Talk about your gas bags.

Posted by: junebug on February 28, 2008 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

Never really read the elder Buckley, but his son (Christopher) really knows how to do a great comic novel.

Posted by: DMC on February 28, 2008 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

I have a feeling Strunk and White weren't his favorite grammarians and he wasn't one of their favorite writers...

Posted by: BobCP on February 28, 2008 at 7:02 PM | PERMALINK

I find Andrew Sullivan close to unreadable all of the time.

Posted by: optical weenie on February 28, 2008 at 7:03 PM | PERMALINK

i'm going to repeat a story i've posted here and elsewhere.

when i was a teenager, in the late '60s, my very liberal mother and i were watching firing line one night (for the guest, i tell you, for the guest!), and my mother said "boy that bill buckley is smart."

"no mom," i replied. "he's articulate. if he were smart, he wouldn't say so many dumb things."

Posted by: howard on February 28, 2008 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

Sure you had to pay close attention, and it helped if you were good at diagramming sentences in your head on the fly, and it helped more if you had an enormous vocabulary of obscure words, but the ride was sure fun. And when you went to the dictionary (before computers), it often turned out it was just the right word, with just the right shade of meaning for the context.

As you may guess I've long been a fan of Buckley, though I'm as liberal as just about anyone who posts here and find many of his positions as false as any the neocons are peddling.

I graduated from college at 32, and on the inside of my class ring, I had inscribed a word I learned from Buckley, "opsimathy," which means "learning achieved late in life." It was intended as a slur, meaning you learn too slow, but I choose to think of it as a compliment, always learning.

Posted by: anandine on February 28, 2008 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

I used to listen to him. It was just all the same Libertarian buzz-words said in as many different ways as he could come up with.

I don't think he was especially persuasive - mainly because he was about 3 feet over everyone else's heads. I usually ended up thinking "No, Bill. It's just you."

Posted by: Joshua Norton on February 28, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

From the 1970s onward, I read Buckley's column infrequently, usually only when a topic really caught my eye. I usually found that his writing style sucked all the life out of interesting topics. And I always thought his fiction stunk.

Interesting man, however.

Posted by: trashhauler on February 28, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

Whenever Buckley ventured into an area involving numbers, he was invariably wrong -- often by many orders of magnitude. Perhaps this was mere incompetence, but I rather think it was contempt of logic when rhetoric was the more attractive alternative.

Posted by: theophylact on February 28, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

My Republican Grandfather read National Review, so I would read it second-hand. It stopped making sense when I stopped smoking pot - ironically, right around the time he took his decriminalization stance.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 28, 2008 at 7:10 PM | PERMALINK

I could never get past that plummy English voice. I know he was educated in England for a few years as a child, but that doesn't explain that exaggerated upper-class accent. My husband and I are English, and our child was educated there till we came here when she was a teenager. She now speaks with a very nice American accent.

Posted by: Andrea on February 28, 2008 at 7:18 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, in today's Repub party, Buckley is found to the left of Barry Goldwater. His magazine stands in harsh contrast to the tinniness and thought-by-bromide nastiness of talk radio. Today’s GOP (especially the Tennessee popinjays) would do well to emulate his civility and rapier wit, but I’m thinking they won’t.

Posted by: Joshua Norton on February 28, 2008 at 7:18 PM | PERMALINK

For adding my always very substantial thoughts to this thread, I wanted to use a very big word for 'obtuse' and so went to dictionary.com's thesaurus. I pass on the results here, without any further comments.

birdbrained, dense, dopey*, drippy, dull*, dumb, flat tire, imperceptive, insensitive, lamebrained, opaque, retarded, slow, stolid, thick, uncomprehending, unintelligent

Posted by: gregor on February 28, 2008 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

"Is this going to unleash an avalanche of people who take a deep breath and finally admit that they too had a hard time figuring out what Buckley was trying to say much of the time?"

Finally admit? I can't remember ever hearing any other opinion about his writing.

Posted by: Gary Sugar on February 28, 2008 at 7:22 PM | PERMALINK

"And of course that is very very very amusing, since he and others of the Burgundy-wine-sipping, Rolls-driving, yacht-owning, chauffeur-employing, trust-fund-baby conservative elite were always trying to pretend that they were common men."

Actually WFB never pretended to be a common man. He was unabashedly elitist, he reveled in it, and rightly so, his elocution reflected that.

I'm amazed at how many people took him seriously. I also believe he was amazed at how many non elitists took him seriously as well...

Posted by: Ahem... on February 28, 2008 at 7:22 PM | PERMALINK

I liked hearing him talk, and never had much of a problem grasping what he was trying to say. But his writing, alas, was often incomprehensible, so I have to agree with Sullivan. And I say that as a Buckley fan. Posted by: Jasper

I quit reading him about the same time I quit reading Will - about 20 years ago. The only thing I remember with fondness was the time he hosted the PBS broadcast of Brideshead Revisited done with Wilfred Sheed.

Posted by: Jeff II on February 28, 2008 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

anandine wrote: "... it helped if you were good at diagramming sentences in your head on the fly ..."

John Kerry was like that in the 2004 presidential campaign: endless sentences, with subordinate clause upon subordinate clause, and by the time he got to the point, I had given up and changed the channel. I don't think I was able to sit through a single Kerry speech in its entirety.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 28, 2008 at 7:25 PM | PERMALINK

"John Kerry was like that"...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. When I ask you what time it is, I don't want to know how to make the watch first.

Posted by: Joshua Norton on February 28, 2008 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: mhr on February 28, 2008 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, we've got to avoid writers whose writing style is nearly incomprehensible... Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Dickens, Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Camus, etc. etc. etc.

Historical era and translation versus pompous gasbag...yep. Perfect analogy.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 28, 2008 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

Although he usually put his considerable intellectual powers to work for awful ideas, I always had a soft spot for Buckley who was unapologetically intelligent and elitist in a political movement which increasingly sought to distance itself from anything touching upon the life of the mind and the notion that expertise, conoissieurship, and liberal (as in classical/literary) education are things of value and not just sissy-boy affectations. I suspect that as such, Buckley probably died at his desk of a aneurysm after perusing a copy of Goldberg's Liberal Fascism and realizing that this is what passes for "intelligent" discourse on the Right today.

Posted by: jonas on February 28, 2008 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

I've read both Buckley and his nemesis; Gore Vidal.
Vidal's writing varies between decent and brilliant, Buckley's was never better then mediocre.

But Buckley did have a slightly stiffer patrician accent then Vidal, to be fair.

Posted by: Joey Giraud on February 28, 2008 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

I hate all the revisionsim that occurs when someone passes away. Buckley was a condescending, elitist asshole. He managed to string long, convoluted sentences together in a way that fooled a lot of people into believing that he was saying something significant.

Posted by: cajun on February 28, 2008 at 7:46 PM | PERMALINK

Cajun hit it on the head.

Posted by: Lew on February 28, 2008 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

Buckley was a man who took a paranoid zeitgeist and helped twist it, through pretentious and prolix pancretation, into pseudo-populist poppycock in the pnyx of American imperial portulence.

Posted by: semiot on February 28, 2008 at 8:00 PM | PERMALINK

Sesquipedalianism, thy name was Bill Buckley.

Still, he was pretty reasonable and civil...virtually a saint by the standards of today's conservatives.

Posted by: Winston Smith on February 28, 2008 at 8:01 PM | PERMALINK

Buckley's prose style was always slightly inflected by the fact that he wasn't a native English speaker; Spanish was his first language, and it did give his English a somewhat artificial, stylized feel sometimes. I dunno, I like him, but then I hate Strunk and White.

Posted by: Derannimer on February 28, 2008 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK

His prose was the same as his old-Virginian accent: affected.

Posted by: SAO on February 28, 2008 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree with almost everyone here. I believe about 10 years ago there was a change in his writing. For the last 5 years or so it seems like his columns were being ghost written. The logic and wit are missing. The long words are almost pointless.

Posted by: mort on February 28, 2008 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

John Kerry was like that in the 2004 presidential campaign: endless sentences, with subordinate clause upon subordinate clause, and by the time he got to the point, I had given up and changed the channel. I don't think I was able to sit through a single Kerry speech in its entirety. Posted by: SecularAnimist

Oh god no! Kerry was, is a horrible speaker, almost as bad a Bush the Elder (Shrub's just a plain fucking moron who seems to have forgotten what he was talking about three words in to his response).

Buckley was wonderful to listen to, even if you weren't quite sure you ended up in the place you thought you were heading.

Posted by: Jeff II on February 28, 2008 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

Buckley had one, and only one, goal: To prove he was smarter (and hence superior) to everyone else.

Everything else is secondary.

Posted by: David Appell on February 28, 2008 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

It was a style. Read Murray Kempton sometime. Same problem - exalted, unreadable. Same generation, yes? It's like everyone thought they were still in Mrs. Connerty's sixth grade English class("only chickens are 'done' - work is 'finished'!) with all that poetry, prose, she stuffed into their heads, ready to ruin a perfectly clear sentence. Hunter Thompson, Lester Bangs, others threw these guys overboard. Some, unfortunately, lingered...

Posted by: Noneoftheabove on February 28, 2008 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

At least in the last few years, his columns were works of forced erudition. Rather than use the best word, it's as if he decided that he had a certain standard to maintain, and did it at the expense of logic and readability.

In some ways, he reminds me of Dennis Miller - Miller built his comedic reputation on the witty obscure reference, and kept trying to use the trick long after the witty was gone and the obscurity was all that was left.

He did have one thing that will be missed on the right. Now, there is such a strong anti-intellectual strain on the right that one cannot imagine a latter day Buckley succeeding. Sure, he could go to Yale, but he'd have to write something like "God and me at my Ranch" if he wanted to get any traction.

Posted by: Fides on February 28, 2008 at 8:55 PM | PERMALINK

He could write well and plainly when he wanted to. He almost never did.

Posted by: MG on February 28, 2008 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Buckley's prose style was rather effete, but not overly obtuse most of the time. The guy who reminds me of him now is the prick George Will. Again, a segue into Buckley's debate ethics is interesting: Starting on page 184 (Buckley's reply is on 185) of _How to Win Arguments_ by William A. Rusher, Rusher quotes replies various commentators in response to a list of questions. Buckley's point re question #5 ("When an arguer is caught in a mistake, what is his best course?): "When an arguer is caught in a mistake his best course of action is to trivialize its significance." Michael Harrington said, "Admit the mistake quickly and openly." Harold Miller: "Admit it. ..." Daniel Patrick Moynihan: " ... a person of any integrity admits it right off."

Posted by: Neil B. on February 28, 2008 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

Lew and Cajun -- I'm a liberal and have had a sneaking affection for WFB for decades and, over the years, as the Republicans got worse, he looked better by comparison. It's not "revisionism" that began yesterday.

When Norman Podhoretz dies, I promise you, few liberals will have anything at all to say that's nice. I know that I won't.

Posted by: Bob on February 28, 2008 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

Two quotes from Mailer about Buckley from yesterday's NYT's obit seem appropriate here:

No other act can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep school kid next door, and the snows of yesteryear.

And, second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row."

Mailer wasn't buying the act, that's for sure. Put downs just aren't as good as they used to be eh?

Posted by: Christopher on February 28, 2008 at 9:23 PM | PERMALINK

Buckwheat wasn't all that pompous. Everybody pretty much understood what he was saying. And he never made any mistakes, anyway.

Posted by: slanted tom on February 28, 2008 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

"it was his fondness for a veering, circuitous style that never quite seemed willing to stop poking around the edges of his ideas and finally stake out a position."
Quite a number of years ago, Buckley had the leader of the Hemlock Society on Firing Line, a hale Welshman. The Hemlock Society advocates for voluntary euthanasia, and Buckley launched off with one of those veering, circuitous questions, drawing in ancient Hellenic philosophers, Uncle Tom Cobbley, and all. When he had concluded on a rising interrogative, the guy from the Hemlock Society looked at him in amazement for a moment and then said in a doughty Welsh accent: "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Posted by: jim on February 28, 2008 at 9:29 PM | PERMALINK

What I liked about WFB's columns was that he would at least give the Devil his due in terms of opposition arguments, and he generally avoided the ad hominem style that is 98 percent of the current right wing style. He let you know what the counterargument would be, let you know his own position, and expected you to agree with his position. I sort of lost interest in his positions in the mid-'70s because he was working harder to defend Catholic dogma then to develop any sort of credible conservatism. Still, he didn't simply call all his adversaries commies (or terrorist lovers, the new commie).

Maybe I'm one of those grammar wonks, but I didn't really find his stuff hard to follow (although I never read any of his books). He had this little quirk, or perhaps it was the world's biggest inside joke, of putting in one word that nobody but Webster's editor could possibly know; still, you understood what he meant by the context anyway.

I was too young to know of his opposition to the civil rights movement in the '50s, and during the '60s his academic style was out of favor.

So no, I didn't find his writing opaque (although I never read any of his books) but his logic was based on a set of assumptions that I didn't buy into. At least he made clear that Catholicism was the ultimate root of his thought.

And to his credit, he never misused the word exponential, nor did he use "begs the question" to mean "stimulates" or "implies" the question when it actually refers to circular logic.

Posted by: Bob G on February 28, 2008 at 9:40 PM | PERMALINK

[I]t often turned out it was just the right word, with just the right shade of meaning for the context.

But, at least on Firing Line it also often turned out that he had missed, either the actual meaning of the word or the shade of meaning that the sentence demanded. As a big fan of trying to start bonfires with Strunk and White, if only the book weren't so small, I love useful complexity in a sentence and I enjoyed listening to WFB at his best, but he was never as good as he wanted you to believe at constructing a brilliant, complex sentence on the fly.

FWIW, I don't think that EB White ever took his own advice seriously, not even in Charlotte's Web.

Posted by: freelunch on February 28, 2008 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

I remember some funny old parody video of Buckley. I would have thought somebody might have put it online but I can't find it.

It may have been Robin Williams. It may have been this 1983 Saturday Night Live sketch.

Posted by: MonkeyBoy on February 28, 2008 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

Simple answers to simple questions:

" Was he always like that?"

Yes.

Posted by: paulo on February 28, 2008 at 9:57 PM | PERMALINK

A pompous, haughty twit with twitchy eyes, who having been born to wealth, looked with disdain upon those who hadn't been so fortunate. His writing was not so much meant to illuminate as to shame, and was self-referential and unnecessarily dense. It is no passing coincidence he helped found a political movement whose hallmarks are selfishness and exclusivity.

Good riddance, I say...

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 28, 2008 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

I always thought he was hiding what he meant, because if he just said it, everyone would know how crazy his views were.

Posted by: David in NY on February 28, 2008 at 10:07 PM | PERMALINK

Vidal's writing varies between decent and brilliant, Buckley's was never better then mediocre.

Right! In all the Buckley-Vidal talk, no one had yet mentioned that Vidal could actually write, write very, very well indeed (I'm mainly talking non-fiction, but his fiction was vastly better than Buckley's). Buckley couldn't. Thanks for reminding me.

Posted by: David in NY on February 28, 2008 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

I always found Buckley's prose close to unreadable. I felt the same way about Murray Kempton.

Posted by: AndrewBW on February 28, 2008 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with noneoftheabove, about the equal unreadability of Murray Kempton and many of that generation. Ornate artifice was admired back then, taken as a sign of education and intelligence.

Posted by: captcrisis on February 28, 2008 at 10:16 PM | PERMALINK

I am grateful to him for introducing me to the word "chiliastic" - at first I thought it referred to the qualities of chili - but NO - it means EXACTLY the same as "millenial". But we all know what millenial means so that would have been dull. (I do not know why it is not "kiliastic".) I not only learned a new word but I learned that greek-derived words are ever so much cooler than latin-derived ones. This helped me in business school when I studied catamenial products.

Posted by: Bostonian in Brooklyn on February 28, 2008 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

Another thing that Buckley shared in common with John Kenneth Galbraith.

Posted by: Quinn on February 28, 2008 at 10:41 PM | PERMALINK

Buckley and Dennis Miller. Two arcane plant embryos in the same locule.

Posted by: asdf on February 28, 2008 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

Buckley was at his best at argument and debate and was seldom bested. I think he is read for his conservatism, as Karl Marx, for ex., is read to bone up on communism.

Some of the comments on his use of big words reminded me of a humorous Roald Dahl story "The Great Automatic Grammatisator." I dug it up and OCR'd a portion:

"One thing I don't quite understand, Knipe. Where do the plots come from? The machine can't possibly invent plots."

"We feed those in, sir. That's no problem at all. Everyone has plots. There's three or four hundred of them written down in that folder there on your left. Feed them straight into the 'plot-memory' section of the machine."

"Go on."

"There are many other little refinements too, Mr. Bohlen. You'll see them all when you study the plans carefully. For example, there's a trick that nearly every writer uses, of inserting at least one long, obscure word into each story. This makes the reader think that the man is very wise and clever. So I have the machine do the same thing. There'll be a whole stack of long words stored away just for this purpose."

"Where?"

"In the 'word-memory' section," he said, epexegetically.

Posted by: Luther on February 28, 2008 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

If by speaking of the penumbrous obscurity of the various divergations and circumlocutions of this, dare we say, original and arresting literary creature or créateur you mean to expose your addlepated, indeed possibly homosexual, incomprehension, then, yes, by all means do quote the inadequate and liberalism-drunk commentators who would attack the reputation of one of our most esteemed conservative voices.

A-n-y-w-a-y, his kind of writing is the antithesis of good writing, which should be simple, clear, and understandable. Including "big words" is not a crime, but including countless many-syllabled words that no normal educated person would understand is.

Two other STINKERS from the world of letters and/or commentary are David Foster Wallace and John Simon. David Foster Wallace STINKS. Tons of cutesy footnotes and writing that is incredibly difficult to follow and understand: IT IS ABYSMAL. And John Simon used bizarre and obscure words. In reviewing a play that Craig Bierko was in, John Simon in "New York" magazine used this word to describe Bierko's face that NO ONE IN HUMAN HISTORY HAS EVER USED. And when I looked it up, I believe the meaning was that Bierko had the face of a ferret or weasel. I'm not necessarily a big Craig Bierko fan, but I do think he's famously an attractive man. But whatever the truth or otherwise of the commentary, John Simon wasn't even reviewing the play, he was just amusing himself by attacking actors' facial features.

Oh, well, I guess David Foster Wallace and John Simon never did as much damage to their country as a pig like Buckley.

Posted by: Anon on February 28, 2008 at 11:24 PM | PERMALINK

He was not opposed to supporting policies that increased the misery and decreased the longevity
of the huddled masses. By his works is a man judged.

I think the least courageous thing a man can do with his life is to defend the rich and powerful.

In oblivion, he finally sees fair apportionment.

Oh, and his writing style was simply pomposity mixed with a well-thumbed thesaurus, unconstrained by conscience.

Posted by: Sparko on February 28, 2008 at 11:47 PM | PERMALINK

There's a difference between being able to use the language really well, and being really logical / rational / good at problem-solving.

It sounds like Buckley's gift with English was like "pearls before swine" or however the saying goes- a total waste. He knew how to use the language, but not how to use it toward any good end, and not just because he wasn't a liberal. I personally never read him, but it sounds like people are saying for all his talent and all his years his never really was able to drive home an argument or to explain himself adequately and efficiently. That's annoying, not illuminating.

Posted by: Swan on February 28, 2008 at 11:58 PM | PERMALINK

Re: "Brideshead Revisited"
There's an exchange in the letters of Evelyn Waugh. Buckley writes to Waugh, who responds politely and who then writes to a friend: who IS this man?
Followed shortly by Waugh's response to friend, saying that Waugh has determined that Buckley is a "mere McCarthyite" and will have nothing to do with him and his periodical.

You had to see Cardinal Buckley's bookends to "Brideshead" to really get the joke.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on February 29, 2008 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

I join with the minority. Like anandine, I found Buckley's use of words to be very well done, making him a joy to read.

But I haven't read anything he wrote in the last five or ten years, so if he declined later in his career I wouldn't know.

Posted by: mdl on February 29, 2008 at 1:43 AM | PERMALINK

I always found him to be pompous and wrongheaded, but I've carried a newspaper clipping of a section from his column around since the Watergate era. It's his skewering of Nixon's speech after he fired Haldeman and Erlichman (sp?) and I think it's brilliant:

"The rhetoric apart, I thought the speech mortally flawed by low analytical cunning. Mr Nixon sought to construct an august scaffolding for himself, whence to preside over the restoration of the public rectitude. He produced a spindle, on which he impaled himself. The structure of the speech compresses into a single sentence: 'Although it is clearly unreasonable that I as President - laboring full-time to bring peace to our generattion and to combat inflation and to make it safe to walk the streets at night - should be held responsible for the excesses and minor illegalities of the entire executive and political staffs, nevertheless, because I am that kind of man, I do accept responsibility, and I commence my discharge of it here tonight by firing two innocent men.'"

Posted by: Stilliberal on February 29, 2008 at 2:21 AM | PERMALINK

Phew! I always thought it was me.


Posted by: abrxas on February 29, 2008 at 3:22 AM | PERMALINK

Buckley was a performer -- he had to be seen and heard to be appreciated.

Reading his writings means taking away the affected modulation of his voice, the studied sidewise tilt of his posture (always to his right, I believe, calculated to fill the TV screen diagonally unlike ordinary talking heads), the fluttering eyelids, the extreme facial acrobatics (some of which evolved into grotesque tics in later years), etc. etc.

Take all these away and all that remains is his fuzzy thinking sprinkled with some straight-from-the-dictionary Greek and Latin masquerading as English.

Who would have thought, though, that the day would come when we feel nostalgic for paleo-conservatives like WFB.

Posted by: JS on February 29, 2008 at 4:16 AM | PERMALINK

My father subscribed to National Review (and may still, I don't know), so I read it when I was a kid and, later, in college. Generally, I came to read it only for WFB's column, the poems, and the acrostic-style puzzle at the back (whose title escapes me).

Starting at university I began realising that most of Buckley's opinions and positions were simply wrong or abhorrent (legalisation of drugs being one of the few exceptions — and even then his motivation was wrong, based not on higher principles but on practicality), but I never lost my respect for his ability to use the English language precisely as he meant to. I rarely had any problem following his prose style; it simply requires a bit of concentration and the desire to learn a new word once in awhile (or divine its meaning from context). And I've never lost my utter contempt for people who can't be bothered to use a dictionary or a thesaurus, or to use proper punctuation, or, in general, to try to be reasonable custodians of the wonderful language they've inherited. He was able to handle three or four, at least; the least any of the several manifestly illiterate clods who have posted on the topic here could do is to manage the one well enough to follow WFB's writing.

(By the way, Strunk and White is a wonderful book. As with all such guides, its advice should be applied when appropriate, and ignored when necessary; if you don't know when to do these things, switch off your computer and go read some real books.)

Regarding WFB's debating style: In debates, his point was not to elucidate or inform, but to win, and one doesn't win debates by conceding mistakes or points to the other team. I found this irritating, since I don't think ideas should be presented as though they were a game of football, but one can hardly fault him for playing the game as he understood it.

And, frankly, I found his persona on TV to be immensely watchable and entertaining. I loved the little twinkle in his eye and the flash of his teeth when he was making a point. More often than not, it would be while he was skewering some utterly incoherent, incompetent, inarticulate defender of the Left. There were few guests (perhaps deliberately so chosen) on our side of the debate who were able to hold their own against him. Galbraith and Vidal certainly could; Chomsky, perhaps; not many others.

So I grew to dislike Buckley's politics intensely, his novels weren't all that great (though I've read worse), and it's quite likely that the quality of his writing declined in the past couple of decades (I haven't read him in a long time), but I wish we on the Left had anyone who could make a point so eloquently and with such panache and, perhaps even more important, an audience who could appreciate it. I don't disdain the use of good grammar and language simply because it was associated with someone whose opinions (and actions) were anathema, any more than I dislike trains running on time simply because Mussolini made them do so.

Posted by: Mike on February 29, 2008 at 4:39 AM | PERMALINK

buckley was so sure of himself. i bet he licked his ass like a cat with his twisted tongue. gave him the lemon pucker look.

Posted by: lloydcarroll on February 29, 2008 at 5:10 AM | PERMALINK

He was not a "Great Communicator"; rather an able spokesman for selfish conservatives.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on February 29, 2008 at 8:29 AM | PERMALINK

Here's WFB resorting to less elevated language in a debate with Gore Vidal (granted, Vidal calls him a crypto-Nazi before he calls Vidal a queer):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYymnxoQnf8

Posted by: rabbit on February 29, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

The accent is a form of Locust Valley Lockjaw, right (not especially British)?

Posted by: rabbit on February 29, 2008 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

I was glad to see this and Andrew's post. I made a similar comment on Yglesias's Buckley thread and no one agreed or even commented on the issue. I thought I must simply be a bit obtuse.

Posted by: Chunche on February 29, 2008 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

One thing I do know is that Buckley was a direct inspiration for the character of Charles Emerson Winchester on MASH, who also was a pretentious, verbose windbag.

Posted by: Speed on February 29, 2008 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

He also used to brag about how little time he put into his column, composing (sic) them in the limo between his house and the office, for example. It showed. But we are talking about him, aren't we.

Posted by: redterror on February 29, 2008 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

Bill Buckley often wrote in haste -- not surprising in a fellow who produced so many columns and books. G.K. Chesterton, another polymath, used to write his columns for the London Evening News at a wine shop while a copy runner waited in a cab to deliver it.

It's been said that he could write a column in 20 minutes. Like Chesterton, he did so a little too often. Remember that old apology of reporters: If I'd had a little more time, I'd have written less.

There was nothing obtuse about his writing, however. If only more people could write badly so well!

Posted by: Ralph on February 29, 2008 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

One thing I do know is that Buckley was a direct inspiration for the character of Charles Emerson Winchester on MASH, who also was a pretentious, verbose windbag. Posted by: Speed

Difference being that, in the end, Winchester could always be counted on to do or say the right thing, unlike Buckley.

Posted by: Jeff II on February 29, 2008 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

How could anyone consider Buckley intelligent when he opposed allowing African-Americans to vote in the 1960's because he considered them a "less advanced race." He actually said white southerners has the right to deny Blacks the vote. He even said, as late as 1987 that that is why he contributed to the NAAdvancementCP. If nothing elst this shows a total ignorance of the Constitution and puts his moral compass in question.

Posted by: David Triche on February 29, 2008 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Mike: I think the back-page puzzle was the Kingsley Double Crostic.

Posted by: Ralph on February 29, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

Buckley never retired from CIA. Every bit of his opaque style was actually part of a Spook Shack plot to brainwash people into becoming conservatives.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 29, 2008 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

If you look at his debate with Chomsky (on Youtube) from 1969 or so, you see the difference between a mind trained to be incredibly clear and one with very little training in clear thought.

In important ways, I don't think Buckley was educated enough.

That said, 'Firing Line' on PBS vs. Tucker Carlson on PBS--we need more public intellectuals.

Bill Maher had a nice comment on this (roughly): "In France, they have public intellectuals. We have Dr. Phil."

Posted by: MattD on February 29, 2008 at 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

(not having read most of the previous comments)

Yes, but I loved his New England I've-got-more-money-and-intelligence-than-you langour and his slouch.

His ideas, not so much.

Posted by: gloria on March 1, 2008 at 9:40 AM | PERMALINK

The same reasons why we found him unreadable are the reasons why conservatives found him impressive.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on March 2, 2008 at 10:50 PM | PERMALINK

In "Manufacturing Consent", the documentary movie supporting Noam Chomsky's book about the media, there is a lovely scene cut from a 60's-era Chomsky and Buckley TV debate about the purpose and effect of the Vietnam war.

It's absolutely hilarious to watch the super-intellectual who constructs complex thoughts in simple words, annihilate the poser-intellectual. To the point where Buckley's hands are clenched, his neck bulges, and he threatens to punch Chomsky.

Probably why no one has ever wanted to debate Chomsky on TV since.

Posted by: Quatrain Gleam on March 3, 2008 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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