STEPHEN SMITH: Renaissance Man: The Loss of Buckley Leaves Us Poorer
William F. Buckley slouched languidly in a swivel chair, his legs crossed, a clipboard in one hand and a pencil in the other.
He introduced the infamous atheist Madelyn Murray O'Hair by explicating her startling philosophy and detailing the court battles she'd waged and was waging to remove religion from all state-supported institutions.
The program was "Firing Line," Buckley was the host, and I recall that O'Hair was in a frenzy. Like a pile of rumpled laundry, she plopped herself down in a chair and rattled off her reasons for opposing prayer and other religious trappings, employing framing words such as first, second, next, fourth, etc., till she'd run briskly through her compelling, one-sided argument.
As she talked, Buckley remained silent and made an occasional note on his clipboard. When she'd finished her tirade, O'Hair sat back comfortably, a smug smile on her plump face.
Then William F. Buckley began his rebuttal. Wielding his pencil with a catlike acuity, he reviewed each of Murray's arguments, agreeing with some ("You make an excellent point when you say.") and disagreeing with others ("But the suppositions you make in point three, although seemingly well taken, are blatantly false.")
He'd carefully accent each multi-syllable word, arching his brow and flickering his tongue as his eyes widened. When he'd finished his homily, the studio audience applauded vigorously, indicating they sided with Buckley and not with O'Hair.
The question of prayer in the public schools had long since been decided by the Supreme Court, so Buckley's victory was moot. But he was compellingly persuasive. And he taught me an important lesson in rhetoric that day: You may be wrong, but you can persuade people to accept your point of view by convincing them that you're an intelligent and reasonable person. O'Hair was a fanatic; Buckley was the soul of measured logic and wit. Could any fair-minded human being not be on his side?
The death of William F. Buckley points up the culture's loss of civility. Unlike today's TV and radio conservatives -- Bill O'Reilly, the demented Bill Cunningham, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, etc. -- Buckley was never venomous. There was no shouting-down a guest, no condescension -- and more importantly, no attempt at manipulation via contrived anger. He may have disagreed adamantly with his guest's point of view -- there would have been no purpose to "Firing Line" if he hadn't -- but he was able to convince without rancor.
During his heyday, Buckley was so well known that his name became a running gag on "Laugh-In," a comedy show popular during the late '60s. Lily Tomlin, who played the sarcastic, nasal telephone operator Ernestine, would stick a plug into her switchboard and ask, "Is this Mr. Fabuckley?" -- the joke having to do with Buckley's middle initial. It always got a laugh. And it was funnier and a whole lot less ironic than Richard Nixon's "Sock it to me!"
When I was in college, I'd read Buckley's columns in the National Review in order to consider opposing arguments and to improve my vocabulary. More than 40 years later, I recall a sentence in which Buckley wrote something like: "If one adumbrates the salvific intentions of belletristic literature, it's possible to comprehend the proclivities of ..."
The verb "to adumbrate" means to produce an image that has a sketchy resemblance to something else. The adjective "belletristic" refers to "belles-lettres," which is literature, especially epistles, that are regarded as fine art and have a purely aesthetic function. "Proclivity" you probably already know, and the adjective "salvific" describes someone or something that has redemptive power, as in salvation.
Not bad for a freshman -- three new words in one sentence. I'd stick them in my pretentious undergraduate research papers in hopes of impressing my professors, one of whom, a Dr. Zinn, wrote in red in the margin: "Ah, me, you are so pedantic!"
Only once did I see Buckley bested in a debate. He'd traveled to England to meet with a team from Oxford University, and he came up short. But he took his loss gracefully and smiled that stingy, tightlipped smile of his.
I'd compare Buckley to Molly Ivins -- witty, erudite, intuitive, and a pleasure to read, regardless of one's political leanings. If today's pundits possessed Buckley's charm and erudition, politics in America would be more humane -- and we'd be better for it.
Stephen Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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