On Buckley’s Civility

I notice that many of the obituaries of Buckley make a positive mention of his manners and civility. That was often accurate. But one way to judge someone’s real civility is to see how he reacts when he’s losing a debate. Yesterday, I rewatched all of the YouTube videos from when he had Noam Chomsky on in the late 1960s and they discussed, among other things, the Vietnam War. Buckley was often good when he knew more than the person he interviewed, which was often. But Chomsky had a calm command of the facts and Buckley got rattled a lot. One way to respond when you get called out is to admit the point. That was not Buckley’s way. Instead he got belligerent, interrupting Chomsky every time Chomsky tried to respond to the latest Buckley thrust. I challenge anyone to watch those videos and come out thinking well of Buckley’s civility.

I write this as someone who liked Buckley somewhat and was even, for 6 months, the economics editor of National Review who wrote 2 unsigned short editorials every issue (in 1986 and early 1987). And I’m not making a total statement of support for everything Noam Chomsky has written or said. But I do think that the scales must be balanced.

29 thoughts on “On Buckley’s Civility”

  1. Sometimes I feel like a frigging sheep. I’d been reading all over the place about how conciliatory and well-mannered and eminently fair and full of gentility Buckley was – believing it all – and then, at TNR, I read about his racism circa 1957. Made me feel rather ignorant, for there went WMB’s eminent fairness. Now, I read this, and…there goes WMB’s manners and gentility. Oh well.

    It’s good to know the truth, I tell you. I was raised by a father who loved the man, always talked about how educated and literarily gorgeous WMB was, and I largely believed, knowing nothing else. I’m not saying WMB should be trashed because of his, er, peculiar tics (which, Lord knows, we all possess in some way, shape or form), but there ain’t nothing like a proper leavening, a proper airing-out of, of post-death beatified icon.


  2. Oh yeah. I’m old enough to remember some lapses when the civility vanished. Buckley could tolerate being disagreed with, but what he couldn’t tolerate was being outclassed by someone he disagreed with. He never developed a graceful way to deal with this, since it was so rare. He would just have a meltdown.

  3. How about the time he got into it with Gore Vidal in 1968 on ABC (was it). Now that’s not a cool, civil, or well-mannered Buckley (or Vidal for that matter, but he never pretended to be).

  4. Buckley’s dead–good riddance. His cheap shots on Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard say all that needs to be said about his lack of character. He was a worthless, spoiled brat just like the garbage who currently occupies the White House.

  5. I guess someone should point out that a guy’s being mostly civil is compatible with occasional lapses? Of which the only examples mentioned so far happened 40 and 50 years ago?

    I don’t know folks; I’m not going to say “De mortuis, nihil nisi bonum,” because honest criticism of a man’s politics is important even after his death. But I don’t see anything but bile and bitterness coming out of this thread, because it’s aimed at the man’s character, not his politics.

    So go ahead and find more examples of Buckley’s incivility, but keep them to yourself. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter whether the world remembers his personality accurately or not. That’s not what eulogies are about anyway.

  6. I will say “De mortuis, nihil nisi bonum.” Or at least wait until the man is buried.

    1. Ah, screw him. Why should we hold our words for a guy that spent his entire adult life shilling for the establishment? He’s no royalty. God did not ordain this man. He’s just a regular schlub, like everyone, and he could have used his oratorial skills to further freedom for all men, but he didn’t do this.

      So screw him. Buried yet or not.

      1. Didn’t Jesus mention something about not judging others, lest ye be judged? Its real easy to judge others, especially when they can no longer defend themselves. Whatever your political views are, for heaven’s sake, have a little respect here.

        1. @ Tim R

          amazing that you do not apply this to yourself — many here will see your hypocrisy come out in such a post

        2. I believe Jesus also said “Blessed be the peacemakers”. Inconsistency is the hallmark of the authoritarian mind.

        3. Yep, you are both correct. I need to work on myself and to become much less judgmental. But hey, two wrongs don’t make a right.

  7. For myself, I often noticed that to win a point in a debate, William Buckley would make something up.

  8. Like so many right wing talking bodies [he sprawled], he mostly had for guests, people who he could dazzle, outtalk or intimidate. The few that got past his very considerable filter system would set him off in a rage.

    We see this today. People who are very articulate, know their facts and are good debaters virtually never appear on any talking head show. Note how Raimondo is basically cut off from appearing in the media!

    I was invited to go onstage with these talking heads in the past only to be escorted away right before the cameras get rolling. Why is that?

    They now talk BEFORE the show and if the person shows any true intelligence, they cancel! It is rather darkly amusing. And the dumbing down of America continues to stride forwards. Note that Chomsky has not been invited to appear much on TV ever since the Buckley show debacle.

  9. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Buckley had all the civility and empathy of a spoiled child.

  10. The man just died and some people have nothing better to do than attack him. Lack of civility? Something about people in glass houses throwing stones comes to mind.

    1. It wasn’t just civility he lacked, but intellectual honesty, morality, and a conscience. A true establishmentarian who availed himself of the ample opportunities for apparatchiks in America doesn’t deserve any sympathy, least of all from us.

  11. I think something we may want to consider after someone’s passing is what would the world have been like without their presence on the stage of life. Once we get past the “he’s not perfect” (duh), I think it is safe to say that our nation, on balance, is better for having WFB as a citizen. I know he and National Review opened my mind up many years ago as a teenager to the importance of free markets and the folly of socialism. He also exemplified the importance that a good idea is worth saying well. Whether you agree or disagree with his final position, you knew that the position was arrived at following a level of intellectual rigor that is too often absent from talk-radio/Ann Coulter/Hannity milieu. (Sadly, many who now write at NR couldn’t carry his WFB’s intellectual jockstrap.)
    Finally, to his credit, he also recognized before his passing the disaster that war-mongering neocons have visited upon both the nation and the GOP.

    Peace be with you.

  12. David,

    I hesitate to open the discussion again, but I went and watched the Buckley/Chomsky debate and I must say I came out thinking very highly of Buckley’s civility. I’ll concede your point that Chomsky had him on the ropes for most of the interview, largely due to Buckley’s relative ignorance of the facts, and I’ll concede that Buckley frequently interrupted Chomsky, possibly for rhetorical purposes. But it was a casual debate between two men who disagreed passionately, and no matter the winner, both restrained themselves as well as can be expected in a public forum. I have witnessed hundreds of similar arguments between trained academics and this one was unremarkable, except for the eloquence and conviction displayed on both sides.

    I agree that ideally opponents should “admit the point” when they have been beaten, rather than changing the subject. But as I am sure you’re aware, such exchanges are partly performative acts: they aim to enlighten the audience, not to convert one or the other participant. Changes of mind and heart occur between debates, not while they are going on, and Buckley’s stammering replies should be enough to satisfy his ideological critics. Calling him uncivil for failing to publicly humiliate himself, and then (here I am not speaking to David) calling him names after he’s dead strikes me as beyond the pale.

  13. Mr. Henderson, I appreciate your insight into WFB. Although your commentary focuses on a facet of Buckley’s behavior, the larger point for me is the highlighting and validating of my impression of Noam Chomsky. I have seen hours of videotape of Chomsky discussing, debating, and fielding questions. Chomsky is unflappable–he simply does not allow emotion into the verbal exchange. He is cogent, logical, and articulate. He is the calm in the storm. His reasoning holds its own quiet strength, and does not need to throw its weight around the room. His demeanor is not defensive; it needs no adrenaline. This trait is remarkable to witness. It makes Chomsky unique among American speakers.

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