Back in the mid-to-late '80s, when I was seemingly the sole liberal on all of Fraternity Row at the University of Maryland, I was the dinner guest at the home of my fraternity "big brother." I had joined the fraternity --one with an old-line conservative tradition; John Wayne and Tom Selleck are alumni--for the simple fact that the price of beer there, amortized over the course of a semester, was quite reasonable. In addition, a group of about nine other members were of my same socioeconomic status and from my same area of Montgomery County. Plus they had boatloads of fun.
My "big brother" warned me ahead of time that his father, a dentist, was a serious conservative, and I should expect to be assailed over dinner. No problem, I told him.
Suffice to say, the dinner was excellent, my hosts charming, and his father most certainly did his best to rattle my cage during and after dinner, but I give as good as I get. We repeated these meals often over the next few years until I left the university for a career in mainstream media. Near the end, my friend's father presented me with a gift: a copy of William F. Buckley Jr.'s book Right Reason, with a genteel inscription from him about helping me "see the light."
At the time, I knew little about Buckley. My sole encounter with his writing was one of his fictional "Blackford Oakes" novels, about a CIA agent, purchased when I needed reading material while waiting for a flight, and the only thing I could recall from that was the recipe for a perfect mint julep, something I remember to this day.
I remember from reading Right Reason cover to cover that Buckley believed any number of things with which I didn't (and still don't) agree, but he was charming and not disagreeable while saying them. The wit with which he used to answer letter writers is something I try to emulate, and I still, when mocking his style of Republican compassion-free noblesse oblige, tend to lapse into Robin Williams' Mr. Magoo-like parody of Buckley's "Locust Valley lockjaw" ("Look, Muffy, Buffy, Chip--there's a Negro! Let's go aaahhsk him something!").
But as an African-American, I have to say that Buckley's legacy takes on a much darker and malignant tint when viewed through the prism of race. Let us not ever forget his 1957 National Review editorial arguing on behalf of segregationists:
The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes--the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.
That Buckley's magazine, in its debut in 1955, "stands athwart history, yelling Stop," serves as nothing, to black people in America, so much as an intellectual progenitor to George Wallace's stance in the schoolhouse door in Alabama--the clarion call of "stand fast" to racists trying to hold the line on a belief system tilting toward history's dustbin.
Here we are, just over a half-century later, and Buckley's philosophical grandchildren have had two major chances at remaking the nation in their image--under Ronald Reagan, a Buckley acolyte, and George W. Bush, who claimed the mantle of Reagan. The discourse is dominated not so much by the wit and erudite style of the respectful Buckley as it is by the malice, dishonesty, bombast, and hate of the Rush Limbaughs, Bill O'Reillys, Ann Coulters, and Michelle Malkins of the New Right.
A black man is primed to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency, and Buckley's conservative heirs are wondering aloud how to avoid charges of racism should they wind up having to campaign against him in the fall. They quietly understand their historic legacy, dating back to the time of that Buckley editorial, and their complicity in tarring their party deeply with the stain of racism, and they now finally see how what they sowed they now may reap.
Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway ironically told the online publication the Politico, "You can't allow the party to be Macaca-ed." Perhaps someone with a better view of race relations and a droll sense of humor might suggest to Conway that the best way for this to happen would be that her candidate, his surrogates, and the GOP in general to not be caught making vivid racial slurs on videotape. It would be a start, anyway.
So requiescat in pace, Bill Buckley. You lived to see the party you revitalized standing astride history, if not athwart it. And those words of yours gifted to me in that book long ago live on for another reader--from their perch on a shelf in the Goodwill to which I donated it.
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