Don’t pass the Buckley

Published 11:07 pm Friday, August 7, 2015

Sometimes we only pay attention when there’s a storm.
I thought this as I saw headline after headline commenting on a new film involving a famous televised argument between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. As the New York Times describes it, the film, “Best of Enemies,” describes the end of civility in public debate and the beginning of the slide into partisan rancor that marks today’s discourse.
I submit that Vidal and Buckley didn’t start the fire; the tumult and violence of our times fed the desire to turn politics into blood sport.
When we only pay attention to storms, we miss the bounty of the everyday. I say this specifically in connection here with Buckley, founder of National Review, the magazine I’ve worked for since a Clinton was president. When Buckley died, Youtube videos of Buckley and Vidal going at it gained plenty of hits. And that made me sad. It missed the point of who Buckley was and what he did.
In the days surrounding his death in 2008, the National Review staff was overwhelmed by emails from people who wanted to testify to how important he was in their lives.
In 1969, when asked about Satan, he said: “I think of him as the person we ought mostly to consider as being in charge of this world. I don’t know how better to understand Christ’s being taken to the mountaintop and offered the kingdoms of this Earth than to assume that it was Satan’s to offer. I do think of Satan as being an expression for worldliness. When we say that Satan roams through the world seeking the destruction of souls, I understand that to mean that the allure of the fleshpots of this world is so great as to constantly be attempting to engage our attention over against grander spiritual pursuits.”
Reading this, I couldn’t help but think what Buckley might be writing these days about Pope Francis, who consistently points to the reality of evil and the necessity of a well-ordered society in order to combat it.
The pope speaks clearly and substantively about gender theory and marriage and creation. And people are paying attention. Could it be that this attention is born out of a desire for the world to make some sense again? The Church of Pope Francis very much resembles the Church as Buckley described it in the book “Nearer My God,” his spiritual autobiography. He wrote: “(T)he Church is unique in that it is governed by a vision that has not changed in two thousand years. It tells us, in just about as many words, that we are not accidental biological accretions, we are creatures of a divine plan; that the God who made us undertook to demonstrate his devotion to us as individual human beings by submitting to the pain and humiliation of the Cross. Nothing in that vision has ever changed, nothing at all, and this is for all Christians a mind-shaking, for some a mind-altering certitude, with which Christians live, in our earnest if pitiable efforts to clear the way for a love that cannot be requited.”
This points to a much fuller portrait of who Buckley was as a man and intellectual in American life. One who was humble, grateful, and, yes, exceedingly civil, so often bringing people together.
At a day when religious freedom is threatened throughout the world, one of Buckley’s most searing lines may have been “Without freedom, there is no true humanity.” So it is true that without people exercising that freedom to give glory and praise to the Creator in their daily lives in the public square, no truly pluralistic society is possible. Mercifully, Buckley left us much to reflect upon and ponder. His wisdom won’t be forgotten but will continue to speak and reveal its riches.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at

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