A View From the Cheap Seats

April 16, 2008

Good Bye to an Old Friend

Filed under: Uncategorized — trzupek @ 2:36 pm


By Rich Trzupek

I lost a good friend last month, no matter that he never knew my name. But I was lucky enough to shake Bill Buckley’s hand six years ago and, while I tend to find celebrity worship degrading to both worshipper and worshipee, I have to say that it was a memorable moment in my life.

Buckley intimidated a lot of readers, including this one, simply because his command of the language was better than anyone’s, Noah Webster included. As a result, there are many people who never really read Buckley, but still think that they know what he was about.

For many casual liberals, Buckley is known chiefly as the father of the modern conservative movement and the guy who got Reagan elected – in other words a demon with a New England accent. Others would point to a youth in which he supported segregation and defended Joe McCarthy. All of these things are true, to a point, yet there is much more about Bill Buckley that makes him a hero to crabby old conservatives like your humble correspondent.

He would cheerfully admit that he was wrong about segregation later in life, giving lie to the idea that conservatives can’t catch up with the times. We can, when the times have proven themselves worthy of change. It just takes a while sometimes.

Buckley was the guy that conservatives could always point to, whether or not they were regular readers of his. Conservatives are morons and liberals are intellectuals? What about Buckley? Love him or hate him, no one would ever deny the power of that Yale-trained intellect.

All conservatives march in lock-step you say? Obviously you never read Buckley, who favored legalizing marijuana, who wanted to ban tobacco and who, later in the war, favored an early pull out in Iraq. Such positions would indeed horrify some of his fellow conservatives, but – reading between the lines – you could see that he was delighted by the outrage.

I wonder, sometimes, if Buckley was attached to all of his contrarian positions, or whether he just took them to tweak some of the pompous folks on both sides, and to remind them that it’s OK to disagree – indeed it’s healthy to disagree. (Note to Democrats: could one of you be Pro-Life? Just one? Really – we’ve got a few Pro-Choice Republicans. You might want to give this whole “diversity” thing a try).

As a writer of very modest accomplishment, seeing a giant like Buckley step away from the crowd encouraged me when I felt moved to do the same. I wrestled with my feelings about capital punishment for a long time, for example, before I concluded that it made no sense to be opposed to killing unborn infants and not be opposed to killing full-grown adults, no matter how black their souls.

But you can take all of those portions of his legacy away and you’d still have a remarkable man for this reason alone: Bill Buckley was always a gentlemen.

That’s a rare thing for someone engaged in the business of distributing opinions these days. Modern commentary is typified by ill-mannered bullies like Bill O’Reilly and James Carvell. The civilized argument, where you could disagree with the idea but respect the man, is largely a thing of the past.

You’ll find exceptions, but they involve names that too few know, like Christopher Hitchens on the liberal front and Mark Steyn on my side of the fence. Mostly, we get blowhards like Ann Coulter and Al Franken.

Many people who know me only through page eight in the Examiner assume that I spend a lot of time listening to Limbaugh or watching O’Reilly. In truth, I can’t stomach either, even though I suspect that I agree with them (or perhaps they agree with me) more often than not. That’s great, but – for me – O’Reilly shouting down a guest with a different opinion gets old after about thirty seconds.

Watching Buckley on his old interview show, Firing Line, or reading his continuing work in National Review was like being transported to departed, more civilized era. Everybody got their say, and Buckley eventually beat them down with the strength of character and flawless logic, not by being the biggest jerk in the room.

“Now wait a minute Trzupek, you are the biggest jerk in The Examiner,” you’re saying. That may be true (if we don’t count our esteemed publisher), but that’s the influence of my other, long-departed, writing hero: Mike Royko. That, and the fact that I don’t have one tenth of Buckley’s intellect or skill (nor one, one thousandth of his vocabulary).

I’ll miss Bill Buckley, but the world will miss him more. And that’s perhaps the worst thing about the passing of this particular giant: in a world gone crass, few will realize what we’ve lost.


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