I remember watching William F. Buckley’s PBS show Firing Line in high school. At times I wasn’t sure how to follow the conversation, conducted as it was on a higher intellectual plane than I could then comprehend. As a student actively involved in high school debating, I was especially interested in the debates Buckley organized, all the more because he insisted on participating himself. In particular I recall one debate over the Panama Canal treaty that had been agreed to by President Jimmy Carter, and which was of course fiercely contested by conservatives, among them Ronald Reagan. At the time, committed as I was to learning the art of notating an unfolding argument, an essential skill for success in debates where missing an opponent’s expressed claim can result in defeat, I remember my difficulty in following Buckley’s sometime obtuse patterns of reasoning.
As I grew older I drifted away from an interest in Buckley’s worldview and gave up on that brand of intellectualism after deciding the National Review had gone so far downhill it wasn’t even interesting to read when treated as an exercise in seeing the world through a conservative’s eyes. Today the degree to which the magazine engages in pure puffery for its causes often reminds me of the bombast of those college Republican types whose bright futures start to drift off course the day they decide Ann Coulter is the prophet of contemporary conservatism, an attitudinal posture that isn’t unique to that political perspective or specific to Coulter, of course.
All this came back with Bill Buckley’s death on February 27 and the recollections of his legacy that quickly folllowed. What I think was most striking about the tributes (beyond the man’s apparent gift for true loyalty and friendship, which is striking in the testimony given by his colleagues) is that what survives him is less the substance of his ideas or even his worldview, but the sheer elan that characterized his argumentative interactions. One recalls less any particular position he advocated (apart from when the sheer juxtaposition of one of his columns, for instance, set him apart from other conservatives, such as when he admitted he thought the Iraq War a mistake) than the fact of his evident glee in the repartee, and the way by which his fearlessness in taking on liberal icons like McGovern and Galbraith and Chomsky empowered conservative points of view otherwise hidden from public circulation. At the memorial in Manhattan last week, Henry Kissinger told a story about a discussion they had – something about whether the jump from intellectualism to faith requires a specific Godly assist – but even there the point was less about Buckley’s theological prowess and more the melancholy turn the tale took as Kissinger concludes his rendition.
The point isn’t that Buckley lacked substance – he expressed positions on many issues, of course, and on occasion he made quite consequential arguments (such as his effort to banish anti-Semitism and the John Birchers from respectable American conservatism). But the effect of his arguing and writing was more often to illuminate Buckley’s supple mind than any particular debating point. And this elan, this expression of wit and style (which was also physical: the swift darting flash of his eyes, his languid pose on the set of the TV show which disguised his propensity to pounce, his crazy linguistic affectations), made its own contribution to the rise of a serious American conservatism, for it made the embrace of right wing ideas, if not cool, then at least not absurd. Perversely, the sheer volume of his writing, and the pace at which it was speedily produced, may have contributed to this overall impression, and to the detriment of a man who undoubtedly relished the specific give and take of policy disputation.
I think Denis Donoghue sheds important light on this phenomenon in his new book, On Eloquence (Yale 2008), a project given some free publicity by his decision to publish an essay of the same title in the Chronicle of Higher Education (18 January 2008). Among some rhetoricians I know the CHE piece was something of a provocation, since it was read (mistakenly, I think, at least in the context of the fuller book) as slighting the study of rhetoric. But this is not Donoghue’s main argument, in my view, and in drawing the distinction he makes between eloquence and rhetoric he points to something interesting and, for me at least, of passing interest to someone trying to figure out William F. Buckley’s charismatic charm.
Donoghue wants to distinguish rhetoric from eloquence (beyond the traditional view that eloquence is a subset of rhetorical scholarship) by arguing that (and this is from the book at page 3) “Eloquence, as distinct from rhetoric, has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice. The main attribute of eloquence is gratuitousness: its place in the world is to be without place or function, its mode is to be intrinsic. Like beauty, it claims only the privilege of being a grace note in the culture that permits it.”
I don’t know Donoghue’s work well enough to judge it more widely than this slim volume; perhaps those who do would make an argument that Donoghue’s overall trajectory is somehow pernicious in ways I cannot see. But I admit to liking his account of language as a gift sometimes given not to persuade but simply to dazzle. I think William F. Buckley would have understood.