- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

GLEANINGS FROM AN UNPLANNED LIFE: AN ANNOTATED ORAL HISTORY

By James L. Buckley

Intercollegiate Studies Institute, $25, 308 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM F. GAVIN

Sen. James L. Buckley … no, that’s Undersecretary of State James L. Buckley … no, maybe I mean Judge James L. Buckley of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Or perhaps I’m talking about President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty James L. Buckley.

After reading the entertaining and informative “Gleanings From an Unplanned Life,” I am not quite certain what title to use for my friend, one-time boss and all-time conservative hero. But of one thing I am positive: This book should be read by anyone, liberal or conservative, seeking to learn more about the impact of conservatism on American politics in the last 40 years. Jim Buckley was present at the creation of modern conservatism and remains an articulate, informed and experienced defender of conservative principles.

In a series of unplanned events, which the word providential is not too strong to describe, he has turned up exactly where the action is, in the Senate, in the executive branch and the judiciary. He performed each job with the painstaking thoroughness, high principle and the genial disposition that earned him the nickname “Gentleman Jim.” He may be the only American alive who has served in a high office of each branch of the federal government.

A few years back, he once more found himself facing an unexpected challenge. As part of a program commissioned by the Historical Society of the District of Columbia to record the lives of district judges, Mr. Buckley sat for a series of interviews with Washington attorney Wendy White.

I say challenge because although he has lived and worked in Washington for almost 40 years, Mr. Buckley is not given to talking about himself or his accomplishments. But Ms. White prove to be an excellent interviewer, and the result is a rich, detailed portrait of an extraordinary man and the extraordinary times in which he has lived.

The interviews are graced by his own “annotations,” opportunities to correct or comment on the topics of the interview, or to offer opinions. And he has strong, unapologetic and at times unexpected opinions on topics including the environment, campaign election laws, judicial activism and abortion.

He talks about his birth in an elevator in a New York City hospital, his idyllic life growing up, in more than comfortable circumstances, as part of a large, lively family in rural Connecticut, his years at Yale, his service as an officer on an LST (Landing Ship Tank) in the Pacific during World War II, his experiences as a world-traveling lawyer for his family’s oil exploration business and then, of course, his life in public service.

He discusses private and public matters, (mostly public, because he still retains the wonderfully old-fashioned notion that there are things that are nobody’s business but his own), in a style combining candor, prudence, wit, civility and a quality unique to him, at least in my experience. I like to call it radical innocence, and the best way to describe it is by quoting him. In a passage dealing with his work at the Department of State, he tells of a meeting he chaired which resulted in a leak to the press. About the leak he says:

“I still don’t understand why presumably responsible adults holding sensitive positions of responsibility find it so hard to keep a confidence.”

At first, that statement seems naive in the extreme. We are, after all, talking about Washington. Everybody leaks to the press in Washington. It is not only a right, we are told, but practically a duty. Why all the fuss?

Here is where the Jim Buckley touch comes in. After all these years in politics and government, he can still be disturbed when government officials do things they shouldn’t do. He cuts through the self-serving, cynical excuses of leakers and brings the subject back to its proper ethical basis: “responsible adults in sensitive positions” should not do things like that, period.

His ability to discuss a topic in terms of first principles, after spin-control and hype-machines and propaganda have done their worst to excuse wrong-doing, is, I believe, his greatest gift. And the truly marvelous thing is, he speaks about ethics without sounding preachy. He doesn’t scold or assume a holier-than-thou attitude. He simply looks at things as they are and reminds us, in his gentle way, how they should be.

I am happy that the executive and judicial branches have had the benefit of his wisdom. But I have long felt that had he won another term in the Senate, modern American conservatism would have been even stronger. His life-long commitment to the environment, to give but one example of his strengths, could have given conservatism a set of principles and a vocabulary for dealing with environmental problems instead of the knee-jerk hostility to the issue which has marked most conservative efforts.

It is relatively easy to “speak the truth to power;” it is extremely difficult to speak unwelcome truths to one’s friends and allies. Jim Buckley, in his gentlemanly way, has always known how to do that.

William F. Gavin, author of the political satire, “One Hell of a Candidate,” served as special assistant to Sen. James L. Buckley, 1972-1976.

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