This essay on William F. Buckley Jr. was published shortly after his death. In the 2020 controversy over giving political partisans the Presidential Medal of Freedom (*PMF), I update and reprint it with an addendum.
Reader question: “In Right Time, Right Place, his 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 obituary 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 was more nuanced, and mellowed over time. And we Churchillians had a minor role in this.
Buckley, Schlesinger, Churchill
We wanted Buckley (and Arthur Schlesinger) as conference speakers a long time before we got them, at the 1995 Boston conference. WFB long resisted our invitation, saying he was unqualified to speak on the subject. I argued somewhat subjectively that there was no subject on which he was unqualified.
We approached Bill Rusher, former publisher of National Review, who earlier spoke to us. Mr. Rusher had explanations that mirrored Brookhiser. “You have to remember that the Buckleys were all America Firsters before the war. Not to mention Irish. They were not natural allies of Churchill.” He added that he often debated WFB on the subject. (Rusher’s college roommate was Henry Anatole Grunwald, who produced American Heritage’s Churchill: The Life Triumphant, 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, Connecticut to boarding school in England. This 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. His fictional hero, Bradford Oakes, like Bill, was whipped by his English Headmaster—”Courtesy of Great Britain, Sir.”
“Saving the Queen” involves CIA agent 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. And entirely disrespectful. Ah, the media.
When Churchill died in 1965, Buckley’s obituary called him a “peacetime catastrophe.” From Bill’s standpoint this referred to not rolling back socialism, and campaigning for summits with the Soviets. He ended: “May he sleep better than those who depended upon him.”
On the spot
My question was to quote his “peacetime catastrophe” line, and to ask if he had 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 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.'”)
“Union of heart and mind”
But his great speech on that occasion caused me to think that he had by then taken a longer view. He considered Churchill indispensable in the battle with Hitler, if ineffective in later battles. I’ve often quoted his peroration:
Mr. Churchill had struggled to diminish totalitarian rule in Europe which, however, increased. He fought to save the Empire, which dissolved. And he fought socialism, which prevailed. He struggled to defeat Hitler, and 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…. But 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.
Stalin vs. Hitler
In fairness it should 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. It 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 disagreed.
The Medal of Freedom
On general grounds I deprecate giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to political partisans. I especially disapprove of giving it at a State of the Union Speech. True, the 2020 recipient performed notable charitable work, particularly for veterans. But that was eclipsed by his political partisanship. Of course, he was not the first partisan recipient, and doubtless not the last.
Ronald Reagan gave the PMF to Bill Buckley, and in this case I think he deserved it. In the mid-Fifties, Buckley rescued the conservative movement. Until he came along, it was fast growing into a preserve of John Birchers and racists. He rejected that, and added a corpus of intelligent argument. Moreover, with one or two notable outbursts, he was always cordial and courteous to his opposition.
Some of Bill’s opposites truly loved him. Allard Lowenstein and John Kenneth Galbraith spring to mind. Harriet Pilpel was another. (Her son Robert wrote one of the great specialized studies, Churchill in America.) Buckley’s long-running political program, Firing Line, was a model of decorum and intelligent debate. He left a legacy that will defy time, and the passing rigors of political repartee. He deserved it, all right.