Remarks at “The Catholic Bill Buckley” Conference | Portsmouth Institute, Portsmouth Abbey School, Portsmouth, RI | 06.20.09

At this conference we have talked about Bill Buckley as a man of faith, a man of letters, a man of creativity.  That creativity included founding National Review magazine, becoming the central figure in a new kind of debate television with Firing Line, authoring thousands of columns and articles, dozens of books, founding the New York Conservative Party and the American conservative movement.

But let me suggest that his greatest creative act – at least his greatest act of creative intellect – was the introduction of a Catholic sensibility into the main currents of American political thought.

Yes, Catholics had been major players in American politics since the 1840s, as the Irish and later the Italians, still later other Catholic ethnic groups, transformed the new nation’s urban governance.  But these Catholics acted as what academics like to call practitioners.

Catholic political thinking was largely on the left and not at all consequential, even in the development of America’s major left-leaning political movements.  The Progressives of the early 20th Century were mainly Protestants and of the managerial mindset that gripped so many Protestant reformers of the time.  The authors of the New Deal were also primarily Protestant — heirs of the Progressives, with large measures of British and German socialism thrown in.  Left-oriented Catholics were tagalongs.

Bill introduced a Catholic perspective into the American discourse at the same moment that the old Protestant establishment’s confidence in the American experiment and America’s place in the world was wavering.  And through that Catholic sensibility he brought clarity to the great issues of his time.

Clarity about the moral nature the struggle with communism.

Clarity about the moral superiority of free markets to collectivism.

Clarity about the essential link between a traditional moral order and the long-term prospects for democracy and freedom.

Clarity about the communism was a central theme of God and Man at Yale.  The Cold War was not just about strategic tensions, a stand off with another nuclear power.  Though much of the Yale faculty had forgotten it, Bill argued, the Cold War was at its root a moral struggle – about the nature of man and society, of freedom, and of free will.

We have heard at this conference McGeorge Bundy’s odious putdown of the book – a not-so-veiled anti-Catholic sneer.  But one thing Bundy got right was that Bill’s understanding of the communist challenge was informed of his Catholicism, reflecting a quality of moral insight almost entirely lost on the Protestant establishment of the day.

Similarly in Up from Liberalism, the contempt Bill displayed for Eleanor Roosevelt and William Sloane Coffin derived not just from their New Deal collectivism but also for their lack of clarity about communism.

And years later in Let Us Speak of Many Things, a compilation of his speeches, Bill included the text of debate remarks in which he takes apart an earlier Norman Mailer speech – one that reflected too much of the literary and political establishment’s thinking of the 1960s and 70s – noting with disdain Mailer’s callousness towards communist butchery and his utter lack of a moral sense about communism.

Bill had that sense – and restored it to American thought just as others were losing it.

Bill brought similar clarity to the role of the market in our national life.

He showed the acuity of his technical understanding of finance in The Unmaking of a Mayor.  The appendix collects the position papers he wrote for his candidacy, including one on New York’s fiscal situation.  In 1975, when New York went bankrupt, politicians and journalists alike – including, for example, the much-celebrated Ken Aulleta, chronicler of the bankruptcy – insisted that no one could have predicted the crisis.  They conveniently forgot – if they had ever bothered to know — that Bill Buckley had diagnosed its causes and forecast its coming a decade earlier.

Bill had read Hayek, von Mises and Friedman.  Their writings influenced his commentaries long before they were widely known within the American intelligencia.

To them, Bill added a moral understanding of markets.

He argued that the free market was best for achieving social justice.  He challenged the notion – popular again today – that government provides a wider and fairer distribution of wealth and a more humane material standard of living.  He noted that market-oriented countries did much better on all these scales than socialist ones and that the freer a country’s markets the more socially just its economy.

He elucidated numerous, often surprising, examples of the market’s morality.

Sometime in the 1970s, for example, in New York City, local liberals got themselves into a rage about the financial distress of a certain classical music radio station.  It was a sign of the market’s callousness, they fumed.  These liberal champions of the people argued, in essence, that market responses to the people’s tastes demonstrated the market’s ethical inadequacy. Bill replied that, in fact, the marketplace of New York radio advertising was not neglecting but favoring the city’s classical music stations.  It was allocating a larger share of revenues to those stations than their share of the radio listening audience alone would have justified.  Instead of ignoring classical music, he said, the market was delivering it a subsidy.

This was an economic and moral sophistication far beyond the capacity of the liberal elites of the era.

You may recall that the story of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, during Khrushchev’s visit to New York.

Rockefeller told Khrushchev that immigrants had come to America for freedom.  Khrushchev snorted, no they didn’t.  They came for jobs.  I was almost one of them, he added.  Rockefeller had no response.

Bill Buckley knew that all those jobs and the better lives and social justice they enabled were the fruits of freedom.  After Khrushchev’s shoe pounding performance at the United Nations, he rented Carnegie Hall for a rally and a reply, finishing his speech calling out a vow directed to the Soviet leader: “We will bury YOU.”

For me, one photo captured the gulf in acuity between Bill and the American Establishment of the mid-1960s.  It appears in The Unmaking of a Mayor.  It was taken during one of the televised debates pitting Bill against Republican nominee John Lindsay and Democratic candidate Abraham Beame.  Beame is making what looks in the photo to be – and knowing Beame, almost certainly was — an earnest but utterly banal point.  Lindsay’s furloughed brow bespeaks his struggle to comprehend.  Next to him, chin on one hand, fingers of the other tapping in boredom the turned-off microphone, Bill stares out with heavy eyelids that announce just how far ahead of the rest of the class his now wandering mind is.

Bill’s clarity about the essential link of morality and democracy and freedom was told in the pages of National Review innumerable times throughout the decades.

Here I want to take issue with something E. J. Dionne said last night.  E.J. is a fine man and a graceful writer, but perhaps he has become too caught up in the early Bradford Oakes novels.  He referred to Bill as a kind of monarchist, or at least one whose thought betrayed monarchical tendencies.

It is a strange conclusion to draw about the founder of one of the few enduringly successful third parties in the nation’s history, a party created to challenge all the political aristocracies of the day… one who ran for political office to begin the unseating of those aristocracies… who helped his brother become a U.S. senator on a platform of challenging those aristocracies… who was instrumental in the election of the 20th Century president least linked to any of the then reigning American political establishments of either political party: Ronald Reagan.

Bill was as determined and shrewd a practioner of American politics as any of the Irish or Italian pols of the great urban machines of yesteryear.  But unlike them and so many others, he used politics as a platform for clarifying the moral underpinnings of popular government and markets and the great global struggle, in sum of an enduringly free society.

Where would we be today without his clarity?

Where would America be?

Where would the world be?

Unlike many who have spoken here, Bill was not a large factor in my career.  I’ve written in recent years for National Review Online, but not for National Review magazine.  He never edited my copy.  He didn’t help me get a job.

As a high school student, I watched him debate during his run for mayor, and those televised debates began my turn to conservatism.  A year later, friends and I drove to New Haven to see him face off against Tom Hayden in an auditorium at Yale.  But I did not truly come to know him until after my years as a White House speechwriter.

Bill influenced me mostly through his writing, editing and public speaking.  And in that I am like those who have come to this conference through a Portsmouth Abbey School connection rather than the Bill Buckley connection… and like most of the millions of young people he reached throughout his career.

We know him not as an intimate, not as a colleague, but as a teacher — a teacher for us all.

Through the application of Catholic moral sensibility and Catholic styles of discourse, his teaching clarified during pivotal decades the political thought of the United States – and, I believe, will continue to clarify that thought for as long as there is a United States.

This entry was posted in Speeches/Lectures and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.