In their lifetimes, Winston Churchill, Alistair Cooke and Richard Nixon each published collected profiles of prominent figures in their time. In “Great Contemporaries” (1937) Churchill’s subjects (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Leon Trotsky and Adolf Hitler, among them) were indeed great or at least prominent, and his assessments were considered. But the totality read as if he had dashed it off, perhaps because he needed the money. Cooke’s “Six Men” (1977) was graceful and engaging and in total sketched the portrait of a seventh man—the author himself. In “Leaders” (1982), Nixon was, well, Nixon, or rather the later Nixon—offering penetrating character assessments and notes of personal melancholy.
In his lifetime, William F. Buckley Jr. never published such a volume. Yet as one of the nation’s most widely read columnists, the seasonal occupant of what he once called a “little apartment” on the New York Times best-seller list, the keeper of a speaking schedule that none but a healthy presidential candidate might attempt, and founder of the American conservative movement, Bill Buckley was easily as acquainted with the major figures of his time as were Churchill, Cooke or Nixon.
It took James Rosen, Washington correspondent for Fox News, to realize that though Buckley had never published such a book, he had in fact written one. For in addition to producing his columns, articles and books, Buckley was the chief obituary writer for National Review, the magazine he founded in 1955 and edited until he initiated a long and careful disengagement starting in 1990.
For “A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century,” Mr. Rosen has mined this abandoned shaft of Buckley prose, excavating glittering ore: 52 obituaries devoted to luminaries from various walks of life—politics, the military, espionage, the world of arts and letters—as well as less prominent but cherished family members and friends. To each profile Mr. Rosen appends his own nicely measured introduction. The section of presidential obituaries is among the shortest (just five men) but the most philosophically revealing.
Buckley is generous to Dwight Eisenhower (“the quintessential American”) while acknowledging conservative frustration with the growth of government in his administrations and his failure to challenge the Soviets. He is equally kind toward the just-assassinated John F. Kennedy (who “at his best exemplified: courage, dignity, fortitude, toughmindness, independence”), while warning against national grief morphing into a liberal policy stampede.
But his 1973 postmortem of Lyndon Johnson is harsh, apt and, living as we do in the rubble of “lead from behind,” startlingly contemporary. Of Johnson’s Vietnam policy, he writes: “It was the strangest aspect of this strange man that, once having decided on a course of action, he did not pursue it . . . with exclusive concern for its success. By his failure to do so, he undermined the very purpose of the intervention,” meaning to drive home to the Soviets in particular the futility of challenging the United States. Turning to domestic affairs, he continues, “the rhetoric of LBJ was in the disastrous tradition of JFK—encouraging the popular superstition that the state could change the quality, no less, of American life. This led necessarily to disappointment, and the more presumptuous the rhetoric, the more bitter the disappointment.”
Nixon was a disappointment to conservatives well before Watergate, for the same reasons that Ike was. Buckley supported Nixon in 1968 (in 1972 NR endorsed John Ashbrook) and respected him. In the end, though, he concluded that the 37th president “was at once the weakest of men, and the strongest. . . . Stained by worldliness, and driven by the hunger to serve.”
Ronald Reagan stood alone, of course, as Buckley’s favorite president. As he said in an appreciation that was first delivered at the Reagan Library five years earlier and that ran in National Review days after Reagan’s passing in 2004: “The conclusive factor in the matter of American security against any threat of Soviet aggression . . . was the character of the occupant of the White House; the character of Ronald Reagan.” Regarding first principles, he added: “Reagan had strategic visions. He told us that most of our civic problems were problems brought on or exacerbated by government, not problems that could be solved by government. That, of course, is enduringly true.”
Mr. Rosen’s selections capture Buckley’s wit and combativeness, as well as his humanity. Of Ayn Rand, a National Review nemesis, he wrote: “She was an eloquent and persuasive antistatist, and if only she had left it at that.” When Eleanor Roosevelt, an indefatigable social reformer, died, he acidly recalled that “following Mrs. Roosevelt in search of irrationality is like following a lighted fuse in search of an explosion: one never has to wait very long.” Admiring of actor David Niven, who kept a house near Buckley’s own in a Swiss ski resort, he wrote: “He was a radiant host, attentive to every need and whim; indeed after a while my wife (who became, arguably, his closest friend) suspected that his magic was to induce a whim, so that he could gratify it.”
A second book featuring Bill Buckley takes up still another aspect of his public persona. The author, Heather Hendershot, is a professor of film and media at MIT. “Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on The Firing Line” is a survey and critique of the television program that did so much, over three decades, to make Buckley a celebrity presence in national life.
Viewers will recall the show’s appeal: Buckley, pen in hand, leaning back in his chair, deploying a sometimes bafflingly phrased or barbed comment as he and his guests engaged in the kind of thoughtful back-and-forth impossible to find on TV today. It was on “Firing Line” that Buckley debated Noam Chomsky, Eldridge Cleaver and Germaine Greer, as well as interviewing Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Ms. Hendershot has apparently viewed or read the transcript for every one of the 1,504 “Firing Line” episodes. If Buckley’s themes could range from the philosophy of the Founders to the music making of Glenn Gould, Ms. Hendershot, as a modern academic, feels the need to focus on image, class, race and gender. So her reading of Buckley’s conservatism is a bit like Buckley’s of Jerry Garcia’s music (yes, one remembrance in Mr. Rosen’s anthology regards the lead singer and guitarist of the Grateful Dead): She doesn’t get the music and doubts that it’s good for the fans.
At one point she gives a fair description of Buckley’s problem with unions—they “had gained so much power that they were the exploiter rather than the exploited”—but she does not grasp its gist: that autocratic union bosses were not serving the best interests of workers. It is hardly an outrageous observation to anyone watching today’s SEIU and its fight to keep its own employees from organizing. Yet without engaging Buckley’s critique, she surmises that, “overall, as one might expect from a wealthy and successful conservative, the scales of [Buckley’s] empathy tilted toward management more than labor.”
She does better in assessing the program’s treatment of racial issues. ”Firing Line” presented, she writes, “some of the most comprehensive representations of Black Power from this era.” But on feminism she wants not simply coverage but agreement. “Buckley patiently engaged with [feminist] ideas that seemed particularly foreign to him,” she notes approvingly, before chiding him for rarely changing his mind about them.
Still, Ms. Hendershot concludes: “Watch enough of the show, and you will know much more than you ever imagined about topics such as civil rights, feminism, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, libertarianism, the death penalty, the blacklist, the New Journalism, the conservative movement, the counterculture, Vietnam, Bach, China, the Soviet Union, the UN, Watergate, the US Postal Service, and even meat prices. . . . You will also learn that political discussion is at its best when it brings with it a strong sense of humor and a willingness not to vilify the opposition as the Enemy.” Said of any other program in television history, such a list would rank as outrageous hyperbole. Of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” it is a simple statement of fact.
—Mr. Judge is managing director of White House Writers Group
and chairman of the Pacific Research Institute.