As we exited St. Patrick's Cathedral after William F. Buckley's memorial Mass on April 4, I noted that two enormous banners advertising the 200th Anniversary of the Archdiocese of New York hung from the rear balcony—one in English, the other in Spanish.
I had to smile at the poetic justice, as I walked down the aisle behind John J. Miller, National Review's head cheerleader for immigration. I am quite sure that he was oblivious to the significance of it.
It had seemed very appropriate when an Establishment globalist like Henry Kissinger walked to the altar to deliver the eulogy for William F. Buckley. The two were more than good friends, as Kissinger told the audience, but were like-minded as well.
Chambers had once written that the Hiss Case was patterned on the Book of Jonah from the Old Testament. I was very interested in this idea, and in the possibility that Chambers had committed suicide, and wanted to discuss the subject further with Buckley. We had a fascinating conversation about Chambers and I learned a lot from it. But Buckley insisted that Chambers did not kill himself and that God's failure to smite the pro-Hiss forces was the reason for Chambers oh-so-close identification with the prophet Jonah.
I disagreed – there was more to the matter and I knew it.
We then we drifted off the subject, and began to discuss the other Great Books of conservatism (besides Chambers' Witness), such as Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, and Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences. I decided to ask him about John Judis' criticism of him—that he had never written a great book (Judis, William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of Conservatives). .
Buckley squirmed, and replied: "Well, I've never really considered myself an original thinker". It was then that I realized that Buckley was (as Peter Brimelow has argued) a very insecure man who didn't have a very high opinion of himself. It reminds me of what he once told Bill Rusher—"I don't think I have a very powerful mind, but I do think I have a very quick one" (cited in Rusher's How To Win Arguments).
Eventually, I developed an interpretation of Chambers that was very different from the one Buckley presented to me and eventually published it in Modern Age [The Cry Against Nineveh: A Centennial Tribute to Whittaker Chambers, Summer 2001, PDF]. While Buckley conceded that my view of Chambers was correct, and congratulated me on it, I also got the sudden feeling that this man who was old enough to be my grandfather had become jealous of me. It was weird. Very weird.
When Buckley spoke at a White House gathering commemorating Chambers' 100th birthday in April 2001, he got up and read an altered version of his old Esquire piece on Chambers—one of the few Buckley essays I admire. [The End Of Whittaker Chambers (PDF)] Except in this speech, he unequivocally said that Whittaker Chambers had killed himself. National Review published this speech soon after it was given. And my essay, which Buckley had already read, and in which I make the case that Chambers very likely committed suicide, had yet to come out.
Nevertheless, it became obvious to me that the architect of the conservative movement, despite his sophistication and exceptional breeding, was a very ordinary man. Moreover, I sensed that his greatest fear is that people would eventually realize it.
I no longer wondered then, as I once did, why National Review purged such genuine conservative talents as Joseph Sobran and John O'Sullivan. A man like William F. Buckley did not enjoy the risk of being upstaged.
However, there is a more profound flaw in Buckley's conservatism that did not occur to me until I attended his Memorial Mass. I believe I now better understand how the man who helped pilot the conservative movement's ascent could also be such a factor in its decline.
It has always seemed to me that preserving the "little platoons" of society (as Edmund Burke put it) should be a high priority of conservatism. And it is obviously discouraging to watch so many faux conservatives cheer as the little platoons of society crack under the stress of Third World immigration. Indeed, many such conservatives were in attendance at Buckley's Memorial Mass.
However, I don't think Buckley ever had any affection for the little platoons of society. It was not something he understood. I also don't think he was being ecumenical when he socialized with jet-setting globalists like Henry Kissinger or John Kenneth Galbraith. Buckley was simply one of them. Such people are far removed from small town America and see no need to maintain its integrity. Indeed, Buckley was in his 70s when he attended his first American baseball game (at the invitation of the ACLU's Ira Glasser) and, presumably, did not notice that the national pastime has been gradually Hispanicized).
Coincidentally, in the church near me sat near Russell Kirk's widow. She often tells the story of how Buckley was dumbfounded that Kirk could live and work in the tiny town of Mecosta, MI. He simply could not appreciate how Kirk could love the little platoon of which he, but not Buckley, was a part.
Matthew Richer (email him) is a writer living in Massachusetts. He is the former American Editor of Right NOW magazine.