- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

I have it on the authority of someone who knows him that William F. Buckley Jr. remembers everything. Founding editor of the conservative journal of opinion National Review, precocious and provocative author of “God and Man at Yale” and “Up From Liberalism,” spy novelist, host of the long-running TV show “Firing Line,” and debater par excellence, he has led a remarkable life, and the details still loom fresh in his mind.

What a treat it is, then, when the self-styled “libertarian journalist” recounts much of that life — his memories of his parents, his friends, his friendly enemies, key events, and his many interests — in “Miles Gone By.”

The man has had real enemies, and they have been vocal. There are leftists and liberals who abhor him for eloquently stating the case for philosophical and political positions they find repugnant, and members of the American right who find fault with him as a high-living jet-setter who is entirely too comfortable, they believe, moving within the toniest circles of society in New York, Newport, and Gstaad.

Dyed-in-the-wool opponents aside, Mr. Buckley has spent his adult life mediating differences among his conservative allies and establishing warm, respectful friendships with political adversaries through a mixture of charm, patience, strong negotiation skills, shrewd judgment, and occasional compromise. And a strong sense of knowing to avoid the company of fools and the ugly-spirited.

Over the course of a long career as a spokesman for the post-World War II conservative cause, Mr. Buckley has drawn the wrath of some would-be allies by, in effect, reading some individuals out of the movement.

Among those figures was Robert Welch, the now almost-forgotten president of the John Birch Society, who in the late 1950s asserted that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist.

After this charge was widely broadcast in 1962, when Welch’s silly book “The Politician” appeared, Mr. Buckley — himself well aware of the Communist menace — devoted many pages of National Review to debating the charge.

One of his regular contributors, Russell Kirk, perhaps best stated the case against Welch’s book, writing succinctly, “Cry wolf often enough and everyone takes you for an imbecile or a knave, when after all there are wolves in this world.”

In another instance, in his role as editor Mr. Buckley commissioned Whittaker Chambers, author of the minor classic “Witness” (1952), to review the novel “Atlas Shrugged” by Objectivism founder Ayn Rand, which appeared in 1959. Chambers offered a critique that is a model of crushing rebuke, titled “Big Sister Is Watching You.”

Rand never forgave Chambers for writing this review or Mr. Buckley for publishing it. For the rest of her life, she pointedly stalked out of any social or political gathering in New York at which Mr. Buckley was present.

Mr. Buckley held Chambers in great respect and spent several years during the mid-1950s attempting to convince the troubled, brilliant former Communist, who styled himself “a man of the Right,” to come aboard National Review as a senior editor.

Chambers agreed to sign on in 1957, and over the next two years he contributed a sparse but memorable collection of essays and reviews to the conservative journal.

Mr. Buckley’s chapter on Chambers is one of the stronger pieces in “Miles Gone By,” showing evidence of immense awe and gratitude for his friendship. Chambers spent the final years of his life farming, writing, and musing over the torment of his witness against Communist penetration of the federal government at the expense of a man he had once called his friend, Alger Hiss.

Mr. Buckley offers fondly-drawn portraits of other colorful editorial colleagues at National Review, notably Frank Meyer, James Burnham, his sister Priscilla Buckley, and one of his former professors, Willmoore Kendall, a man once described by Dwight Macdonald as “a wild Yale don who can bring an argument into the shouting stage faster than any man in town.”

Memories of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, New Yorker editor William Shawn, and Ronald Reagan are also especially well-rendered, mixing gentle humor and affectionate recollections of the very human qualities of each, qualities that are sometimes lost in the glare of the public spotlight.

Figures who have influenced Mr. Buckley in matters of his Catholic faith — his mother, Aloise Steiner Buckley, and his father — are movingly brought to life. Would that Mr. Buckley had chosen to include in “Miles Gone By” an essay he wrote a few years ago about libertarian editor and essayist Albert Jay Nock, who exercised a marked influence upon his intellectual development.

In the chapters regarding his upbringing and in the concluding essay, “Thoughts on a Final Passage,” there is a gently sad, autumnal tone. It is as if this flamboyant veteran of so many platform debates, this much-sought-after lecturer, this blue-water sailor of strong talent, this busy writer and editor who has traveled the world and lives his life in overdrive, is at age 78 at last sensing his own mortality and the approach of “the eternal Footman.”

Which is not to say that Mr. Buckley is retiring from the public arena. There is vigor in him and in his writings yet, for his essays catch fire when he writes of his passions — to some degree skiing, but to a much greater extent, sailing.

When Mr. Buckley writes of purchasing (and eventually selling) his boats, fitting them out, gathering a crew, setting out on a journey at sea, and finally coming into port — with numerous contingencies and decisions in mind throughout the voyage — there is a strong sense of excitement, contentment, and fulfillment.

This transcends the fact that he writes of genoas, spinnakers, and 101 other nautical terms that can leave the land-bound reader feeling a little like Bertie Wooster contemplating Baruch Spinoza’s collected works.

The sea calls Mr. Buckley home. He devotes more essays to sailing than to any other topic in “Miles Gone By,” returning to the subject in his ruminative final chapter. Here, he speaks once again of Whittaker Chambers, who had known great weariness from his eventful life.

Mr. Buckley then likens the later years of his own life to a sailing adventure in which he has shortened sail just a little, desiring more steadiness than full-ahead speed. Still, “You are moving at racing speed, parting the buttery sea as with a scalpel, and the waters roar by, themselves exuberantly subdued by your powers to command your way through them. Triumphalism … and the stars also seem to be singing together for joy.”

In an essay on sailing (published at the Web site sailnet.com), Mark Matthews has written, “At sea, we watch the unbroken cycle of day and night pass by while sailing from one island to another, visited by reeling sea birds, frolicking dolphins, pilot whales, glowing phosphorescence in our wake as we plot the slow tick of miles gone by under the keel on the chart.

“My impression is that we’re living life to its fullest. Time is structured to suit us, and the typical day is one that is never quite like the day before.” Which describes perfectly the life of William Frank Buckley Jr.

James E. Person Jr. is at work on two books, on conservative man of letters Russell Kirk and on Virginia novelist and screenwriter Earl Hamner.

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