By Sugwon Kang
Last weekend, NBC's Tim Russert played an old recording of Gabe Pressman's interview of William F. Buckley, Jr., to mark the passing of this "true intellectual" and "unique American character."
Buckley was indeed both. But the interview had something disturbing about it, which is not to say I was surprised to hear it. Pressman quoted Buckley's own words back to him, inviting him to comment.
On one quote, Buckley said he wasn't sure if he had said it, but he stopped short of saying that he had never said it or that he would never say such things.
He called President Harry S. Truman "the nation's most conspicuous vulgarian." He said of President Dwight D. Eisenhower that "when he touches a subject, every ray of light, every breath of air is choked out."
As for John F. Kennedy and his team, "there are not enough psychiatrists in the country to cure this crazy administration."
Finally, Lyndon B. Johnson was just "Uncle Corn Pone."
Buckley, who died last week at the age of 82, something of a legend in his own time, was a man who had a way with words. And he didn't much care if the words he spoke or wrote had gone out of fashion before his arrival on the planet or were too long for most people to appreciate.
His aim appears to have been more to parade than to inform, more to dazzle than to enlighten.
If he was a polysyllabic threat to some, others might take solace in the fact that he was a pleonastic acrobat, something of a bore who got his kicks from intimidating weaker brains by indulging in unnecessary verbiage. Exactly how one ought to describe Buckley, and to do so with justice, is not an easy question, for he was truly a divisive figure.
He was a messiah to some, especially during the 1960s when he was supporting Barry Goldwater and opposing every major civil-rights program; but to others he was a mischief-maker with a toothy grin and a gargantuan vocabulary.
Language was his weapon of choice, and he was adored and dreaded for what he did so well.
For the late Arthur M. Schlessinger Jr., Buckley was the "scourge of liberalism," an epithet that Buckley no doubt took to heart, coming as it did from the intellectual high priest of American liberalism.
Like him or not, it's difficult to deny that Buckley was an extraordinarily gifted man, even if he seemed to spoil things at times by shamelessly advertising his prowess.
He is reported to have written 6,600 newspaper columns and more than 50 books, on a wide range of unrelated topics, from politics to sailing and novels about espionage. And he edited his National Review for 35 years.
That is the journal of opinion he founded when he was only 29; it quickly became a gathering place for a wide range of "public intellectuals," as we'd call them today, many of whom were not known for their ultra-conservative sympathies.
It was, as we look back, a timely answer to the venerable The Nation, on the left, and The New Republic, in the middle, for a generation in which, according to Lionel Trilling, it was not possible to find any "conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation."
Above and beyond his superhuman activities as a writer and publicist, Buckley was one of the most sought-after public speakers in the land; he commanded an average of 70 engagements per year over four decades, so we have been told.
Perhaps most memorably, if you're a Buckley fan, he hosted one of the longest-running television shows ever, menacingly called "Firing Line," which closed in 1999 after 1,429 episodes.
During this program, aired by PBS, Buckley would be seated in his chair, usually with a pen in hand, in a steeply reclining pose, perilously off-balance.
There he would speak in an accent some called "patrician," but I preferred to describe as nondescript. Sometimes it was difficult to make out what this supercilious man was saying because of his lazy enunciation, which I took to be an affectation.
But in a very strange sort of way, Buckley the television star was also very physical on screen. His eyes rolled auspiciously as he chewed on his words as if they were of great consequence, and as if he were an honored guest imparting wisdom to an obliging host.
And his face moved, especially his forehead, as if it required constant adjusting. And that unforgettable serpentine tongue! He would extend it and retract it as he spoke much like a lizard in search of his prey.
In that television interview mentioned above, which was aired Oct. 17, 1965, in the course of which Pressman recalled those astonishing remarks about a succession of American presidents, Buckley was asked what we were to think of democracy if this was, indeed, the way the people elected their leaders.
These contemptible dimwits were put in there presumably by their undiscriminating electorate, no?
"In view of your opinions" of these recent presidents, said Pressman, "what do you think of the American voter?"
A fair question.
It seems this father of America's conservative movement had never thought much about such things.
The man didn't even seem to catch the drift of the question, which would have delighted the Founding Fathers for its perspicacity.
After paying some lip-service to the supposed greatness of the American people, which was transparently insincere if not incoherent _ "the average American is a little above average" _ Buckley trained his guns on his favorite target: the incompetent university professoriate.
"I have often been quoted saying I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University."
A good line, perhaps, but hardly an answer to the question.
Buckley often displayed his conceit in good humor, knowing how to be brash without being offensive. In his able hands, conceit was often made to masquerade as self-deprecation.
In 1976, during his debate with his hero Ronald Reagan about the future of the Panama Canal, the gentleman from California greeted his younger friend and intellectual mentor with this flattering tribute:
"Well, Bill, my first question is, why haven't you already rushed across the room here to tell me that you've seen the light?"
Buckley replied: "I'm afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you."
During a "Laugh-In" appearance in 1970, Henry Gibson asked his guest, "Mr. Buckley, I have noticed that whenever you appear on television, you're always seated. Is that because you can't think on your feet?"
Buckley replied: "It's very hard to stand up carrying the weight of what I know."
Oscar Wilde would have been impressed. With the death of William F. Buckley last week we lost a remarkable man, an American original.
Kang is a retired Hartwick College political professor.