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Jeet Heer Praises William F. Buckley's Capacity to Learn

Jeet Heer:

: I do have to say though that the passing of William F. Buckley, whose death has just been announced, makes me feel wistful and at a loss. Like countless other readers, I read Buckley not for his ideas but for his voice, that languid self-assured upper-crust tone that was saved from being offensively twee by a certain tart wit and generous capacity to engage with other points of view....

I want to focus in on a few key themes in his life.

Race and his capacity for change. Conservatives are supposed to be defenders of the status quo but Buckley had a life-long capacity to change, adapt and learn. This can be seen most clearly on the issue of race. Like many Americans of his generation, Buckley was raised to be a bigot. His siblings once burned a cross in front of a Jewish resort. In the 1950s, Buckley and the circle of writers at National Review around him were unabashedly racist, often publishing whole-hearted defenses of Jim Crow segregation. This is evident in an 1957 editorial defending the Southern states from challenges to Jim Crow: "The central question that emerges... is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes - the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists." (National Review, August 27, 1957).

Despite this dismal stance, Buckley did in fact change and renounce racism by the mid-1960s, in part because his horror at the terrorist tactics used by white supremacists to fight the civil rights movement, in part because of the moral witness of friends like Garry Wills who confronted Buckley with the immorality of his politics.... There are a host of other issues on which Buckley moderated his politics. In the 1980s, he said that if he were a black South African he would probably support the ANC, a statement that shocked fellow conservatives. This independence of mind continued to the end of his life. Not too long ago, he admitted that the Iraq war was a ghastly mistake, again annoying his intellectual fellow travelers. He was learning until his last days....

Buckley was a literary man at heart, which can best be seen in his skill at discovering young writers. To read the book review section of the old National Review is to come across an amazing range of stylists who had either been discovered by Buckley or nurtured by his friendship: Arlene Croce, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, John Leonard, D. Keith Mano. As Buckley became disengaged from National Review, the magazine lost its taste for strong, distinctive prose....

Buckley will be widely and enormously missed. Rest in peace.