William F. Buckley, PMF*: A True Churchillian in the End

William F. Buckley, PMF*: A True Churchillian in the End

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.)

“Peacetime catastrophe”

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

With the help of my dear friend Lar­ry Arnn, Pres­i­dent of Hills­dale Col­lege, we final­ly host­ed Buck­ley at Boston. We end­ed with a Nation­al Press Club-style Q&A ses­sion.

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.

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