- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

Last week, one of the most finely tuned musical instruments ever to be heard in America was withdrawn

from public view, abruptly and probably forever. From a speaker's dais in Fort Wayne, Ind., William F. Buckley Jr. announced that this was his final public performance. The orotund voice of the republic's finest debater and lecturer was on its way to retirement.

Radiant wit, critic, author, editor and public intellectual, Bill Buckley is also one of the two or three most important figures in the founding of modern American conservatism. The resurgent movement began to twitch and to breathe in air in the early 1950s. From then on, Bill played practically every role required in a political movement: organizer, polemicist, fund-raiser and even candidate. He was the delight of the 1965 New York City mayoral race when he ran a campaign mixing puckishness and sophisticated policy proposals as the Conservative Party candidate. Yet, his most notable role has been that of maestro of the word, both written and spoken.

His books will be read long after he assumes room temperature. The writing is grand. His ideas, epitomizing those of the growing conservative movement, have spread through both political parties (that New Democrat in the White House boasting of his balanced budget and welfare reform while calling conservatives extreme right is but a New Hypocrite).

Unfortunately, it is Bill's spoken words that are now in danger of being lost. Most words uttered to an audience expire the night they are uttered. So much the better for most of the mediocrities who speak publicly in America nowadays. But Bill's lectures have been composed with great care and spoken with a fine sense of drama. His debates have been even better, especially when they were with such bright prestidigitators of the left as John Kenneth Galbraith. The heyday of those debates was in the 1960s, when liberalism's intellectual and political possibilities were still arguable, and when liberalism's proponents were still vigorous and disciplined in their thought. That was long ago, and no heirs to Mr. Galbraith ever replaced him.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bill was left debating the ghost of Mr. Galbraith and a few second-rate sophists. No wonder he is retiring. Debate in America died 20 years ago. Why it died is an open question. Perhaps one reason is that people supposedly debate to arrive at the truth. Looking back on the debates between conservatives and liberals since the 1960s, one gets the impression that truth was not the goal. Through the years while Mr. Buckley debated the value of free markets, limited government, moral absolutes and all the lesser desiderata of his point of view, socialism was being abandoned, government bureaucracy was being exposed and the anarchy of life without standards was leaving wretchedness and absurdity as its obvious consequences.

Outside the debating hall, Bill had won the debate. Inside the debating hall, his opponents merely ignored the evidence and continued to hold to the old-time religions of "progressive" thought. What they revealed was that they were not interested in the truth so much as they were intent on conforming to the orthodoxy of progressive thought. Today, Mr. Galbraith is 91. His views on the economy, the environment and all the other artifacts of progress are unchanged. He dwells in the intellectual ruins but is content. If he were a little younger, he might have shown up in Washington this week to demonstrate against "global capitalism."

Then he might have popped over to visit friends in the White House. There, the president and all the other New Democrats would quietly set aside their enthusiasms for world trade, balanced budgets and all the rest they have learned from Bill Buckley's debates, and accord Mr. Galbraith's antique concerns abundant amens. The New Democrat talks on both sides of every issue; but lest the New Democrat wreck the economy, he allows the market to work. Mr. Galbraith still believes the market to be a myth. Some myth.

So Bill has quit the lecture circuit, and there will be no more debates from him. After all, what is there to debate? In most departments he has been right. He does have some tricks left to play. Just to let posterity know about his virtuoso performances at the speaker's dais, he has gathered some of his finest lectures into a volume that will be published soon. He has a book coming out on Elvis Presley and more in the planning stages. One of those books has got to be a memoir. He knows more about how America got here from there than almost anyone else.

R. Emmett Tyrrell is a editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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