Bill Buckley, Churchillian

Bill Buckley, Churchillian

William F. Buckley, Jr. recalling her father's speeches with Churchill Centre Patron Lady Soames, International Churchill Conference, Copley Plaza, Boston, November 1995.
William F. Buck­ley, Jr. recall­ing her father’s speech­es with Lady Soames, Boston, 1995.

In Right Time, Right Place, his new book about his life work­ing with Wil­i­iam F. Buck­ley, Jr. at Nation­al Review, Richard Brookhis­er aserts that WFB dis­liked Sir Win­ston. I queried Brookhis­er who replied: “WFB’s obit for Churchill in NR was notably grudg­ing, and reflect­ed I think his youth­ful Amer­i­ca First con­vic­tions.” As these two men are my only heroes, I was dis­ap­point­ed to see such an asser­tion from some­one who appar­ent­ly knew Buck­ley very well. Based on host­ing him at the 1995 Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Con­fer­ence, do you think this is true? —C.C.

Mr. Brookhiser’s book is by many accounts out­stand­ing, but I think his com­ment is not dis­pos­i­tive. Bill Buckley’s atti­tude to Churchill mel­lowed over time—and we Churchillians had a minor role in this.

We want­ed Buck­ley (and Arthur Schlesinger) as con­fer­ence speak­ers a long time before we got them, at our 1995 Boston con­fer­ence. WFB had resist­ed our invi­ta­tion, say­ing he was unqual­i­fied to speak on the sub­ject. I argued that there was no sub­ject on which he was unqual­i­fied(!) and approached Bill Rush­er, for­mer pub­lish­er of Nation­al Review, who had spo­ken to us ear­li­er. Mr. Rush­er said, “You have to remem­ber that the Buck­leys were all Amer­i­ca Firsters before the war, not to men­tion Irish—not nat­ur­al allies of Churchill.” He added that he often had debates with WFB on the sub­ject. (Rusher’s col­lege room­mate was Hen­ry Ana­tole Grun­wald, who pro­duced the superb Amer­i­can Her­itage doc­u­men­tary, Churchill: The Life Tri­umphant, in 1965. If you don’t have this, you should get a copy.)

Pos­si­bly, Bill Buckley’s antipa­thy pre­ced­ed even the Amer­i­ca First move­ment. As a boy, his father sent him away from his beloved Sharon to board­ing school in Eng­land, which he hat­ed, espe­cial­ly the upper class mas­ters who looked down their noses at Yanks. He got even, so to speak, in his first nov­el, Sav­ing the Queen, through his fic­tion­al hero, Brad­ford Oakes, who, like Bill, was whipped by his Eng­lish Headmaster—”Courtesy of Great Britain, Sir.” Thus “Sav­ing the Queen” includes Oakes get­ting to know the fic­tion­al Queen Car­o­line in the bib­li­cal sense— “Cour­tesy of the Unit­ed States, Ma’am.” On his book tour in Lon­don a cheeky reporter asked, “Mr. Buck­ley, do you want to sleep with our Queen?” Very droll…

When Churchill died in 1965, Buckley’s obit­u­ary called him a “peace­time cat­a­stro­phe,” which, from Bill’s stand­point (not rolling back social­ism, cam­paign­ing for sum­mits with the Sovi­ets) he was. When he spoke at our 1995 Boston con­fer­ence, we end­ed with a Nation­al Press Club-style Q&A ses­sion.

My ques­tion (unsigned!) was to quote his “peace­time cat­a­stro­phe” line and ask whether he ever recon­sid­ered that judg­ment. WFB amus­ing­ly replied: “I have often been asked to recon­sid­er my judg­ments, but try as I might I have nev­er found any rea­son to cause me to do so.”

(Nobody could ever put him on the spot that night. Anoth­er ques­tion­er asked, “If you could have Win­ston Churchill to your­self for an entire evening, what would you say to him?” Bill quick­ly replied: “I would say: ‘Please talk non-stop.'”)

But his great speech on that occa­sion caused me to think that he had by then tak­en a longer view, con­sid­er­ing Churchill indis­pens­able in the bat­tle with Hitler, if inef­fec­tive in lat­er bat­tles:

Mr. Churchill had strug­gled to dimin­ish total­i­tar­i­an rule in Europe which, how­ev­er, increased. He fought to save the Empire, which dis­solved. He fought social­ism, which pre­vailed. He strug­gled to defeat Hitler, and he won. It is not, I think, the sig­nif­i­cance of that vic­to­ry, mighty and glo­ri­ous though it was, that caus­es the name of Churchill to make the blood run a lit­tle faster….it is the roar that we hear, when we pro­nounce his name.

It is sim­ply mis­tak­en that bat­tles are nec­es­sar­i­ly more impor­tant than the words that sum­mon men to arms, or who remem­ber the call to arms. The Bat­tle of Agin­court was long for­got­ten as a geopo­lit­i­cal event, but the words of Hen­ry V, with Shake­speare to recall them, are imper­ish­able in the mind, even as which side won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg will dim from the mem­o­ry of those who will nev­er for­get the words spo­ken about that bat­tle by Abra­ham Lin­coln.

The genius of Churchill was his union of affini­ties of the heart and of the mind, the total fusion of ani­mal and spir­i­tu­al energy….It is my pro­pos­al that Churchill’s words were indis­pens­able to the bene­dic­tion of that hour, which we hail here tonight, as we hail the mem­o­ry of the man who spoke them; as we come togeth­er, to praise a famous man.

The entire speech can be found in the Buck­ley vol­ume of col­lect­ed speech­es, Let Us Talk of Many Things.

In fair­ness it should also be said that Buck­ley con­sid­ered Stal­in a more vir­u­lent dis­ease than Hitler. In our cor­re­spon­dence he made a telling remark: “My thought has always been that Nazism had absolute­ly no escha­tol­ogy, and would with­er on the vine. Only the life of Hitler kept it going, and I can’t imag­ine he’d have last­ed very long. The Com­mu­nists hung in there [after the war] for forty-six years.”

Of course, in the con­text of the 1930s, I dis­agree….

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