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 living or dead, 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 The Churchill Centre 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.)
But I suspect 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 Labour 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 against Socialism and the Soviets:
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 Churchill Proceedings 1995-1996, and 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 published in Finest Hour 138 he makes this 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….