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BOOK REVIEW: Conservative lion’s enduring charm

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ATHWART HISTORY: HALF A CENTURY OF POLEMICS, ANIMADVERSIONS, AND ILLUMINATIONS: A WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR. OMNIBUS
Edited by Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball
Encounter, $29.95, 496 pages

How often in these stressful times do we wish the late (alas) William F. Buckley Jr. might step forward and speak a word of expostulation or encouragement? Well, that's just the point, you see. He's done it: without waiting, what's more, for Barack Obama to appear out of nowhere, or Rahm Emanuel, or Robert Gibbs or Barney Frank and so on and so forth, gag.

The charm of conservatism lies not least in its sense of the timeless. Counsel dispensed once, with due consideration for prudence and the wisdom of the past, is counsel that lies ready to be re-dispensed and re-re-dispensed according to necessity - which is just about always, given the persistence of the disease conservatives identify as liberalism.

Consider the very first line in this fine and invigorating collection of WFB's writings: "We conservatives have suffered a great deal." Why, yes, one might concede as much in 2010. A few lines later, the godfather of modern conservatism is mocking liberal insistence that "a social revolution has occurred in the United States" and why don't you right-wingers get used to it?

A few more lines and "How is it, I'd like to know, that so many of us heed and even solicit the counsel of our sworn enemies, the collectivists?" We're not calling names here, of course, but might not such a pointed query haunt members of the Business Roundtable who admitted in June to have been taken for a ride by the Obama administration after subserviently going along with its preliminary agenda of taxes and regulation?

The foregoing Buckleyan observations were, my gosh, put on paper in 1951. Nineteen-fifty-one, I tell you. Perusing them in 2010 puts one in full plus-ca-change mode. The more it changes (yes?) the more it stays the same: the inherent beauty of liberty and tradition; the danger those ideals face from rival faiths; the perpetual need for vigilance and strenuous exertion to keep alive such portion of the American tradition as the courts or Congress or the media have yet to plant six feet under.

The relevance of Buckley's journalism and speechcraft, it strikes me, is perpetual: ever fresh despite dates of composition. True, it would be fun to see him pop up from time to time on the news programs to address the pretensions of "Yes, we can!" If that can't happen, Americans still can stimulate both the economy and their intellects by buying the collection Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball have assembled lovingly.

"Standing athwart history crying 'Stop' " was the explicit mission of the magazine - National Review - Buckley founded in 1955 (which, like the varied challenges to conservatism, endures). Not that anyone, least of all Buckley, expected history to pull off the road and downshift into park. He hoped. And, while hoping, he appraised with wit and insight.

Thus Lyndon Johnson, a kind of Obama-before-Obama when it came to grandiosity, sought a Great Society but "ushered in bitterness and resentment" together with "the lowest recorded confidence vote in the basic institutions of this country since the birth of George Gallup." On deficit spending: Acceptance of that economic affliction means "an attitude of detachment toward the old principle that you should not spend what you do not have. And this detachment is degenerate, as witness popular political attitudes on the matter of Social Security." When was the last time a prominent public figure used a word like "degenerate," connoting as it does the existence of a hierarchy of values, some better than others, some worse?

Among the values that Buckley, a man of charm and good humor, embraced was that of decent appearance. In 1959, he lectured Princeton University for evident timorousness in caving in to declining standards of dress. "The tendency," he wrote, "is to depreciate the beneficence of externally imposed norms of civilized behavior. Coat-and-tie is merely symbol. It could be courtesy; deference; reverence; humility; moderation: and are these not, all, the proper concern of a college administration? Is there a relationship between a faculty's weakmindedness, and a student body's disorderliness?"

A half-dozen years later, at the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University and elsewhere, the question answered itself: You bet there was a relationship. The love-bead wearers hammered the tweed-coat set into tame submission.

There was - is - a sophistication about Buckley's writing that detractors took for snobbishness. The more fools they, if proletarian sensibilities prevented their enjoyment of prose unique in tone and still quite beautiful to look at and drink in. It certainly wouldn't make sense to say that Buckley was always right. Who is? What he was (among other things) was prescient, discerning and - an attribute not often commended these days - very, very wise. Wisdom consists not merely in appropriating facts and ideas, as if prepping for oral exams. It consists in applying those same facts and ideas to circumstances new as well as old for the sake of opening up to public gaze a certain view of reality.

No mere entertainer was William F. Buckley Jr. in the radio-host mode or that of the blogger who insults and castigates so as to get a rise out of his readers. Buckley was a wise man steeped in the wisdom of other wise men, not to mention women; duly appreciative of them all, so much so that he set about to share as widely as possible the wonderful discoveries he had made and maturely appropriated.

"Athwart History" is so full of almost sinfully rich stuff I wouldn't dare chomp down on it before breakfast. But afterward!

William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.

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