WASHINGTON — Last weekend I was given a hint as to how an erroneous idea is born and how it takes on a life of its own. I was at Yale University, as a guest of “The William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale.” It is run by a group of extremely winning young Yale students who are all admirably conservative. Bill would approve. They all carried themselves like young ladies and young gentlemen. They were confident of their ideas and amused. One of their goals is to keep the name of William F. Buckley Jr. alive and a thorn in the side of Yale’s smug Liberal establishment. The theme of the weekend was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the publication of God and Man at Yale, written by the very same enfant terrible, William F. Buckley Jr. It nicely complemented the group’s mission of badgering smug Yale.
There were several panels, and Friday evening a speech by Bill’s great friend, Henry Kissinger. It was a moving speech. Henry and Bill maintained a friendship that was exceptional and endured over a lifetime, overcoming every political disagreement. Henry’s opening to China? No problem. Henry’s support of President Gerald Ford over Governor Ronald Reagan? No problem. Henry’s speech and the interaction on the panels went swimmingly, but there was a problem. An erroneous idea was born, and by the end of the evening it threatened to disfigure the memory of Bill Buckley.
The first glimmer of the erroneous idea was launched on a panel in which Bill’s erudition was remarked on. Also his penchant for polysyllabic words was noted. I think his mastery of debate was mentioned, and his sailing, his harpsichord playing, and dozens of other achievements. Then came the mention of the improbable and the erroneous. Someone got it into his head that Bill was “humble.” Humility has a ready market in America today, especially reflections on the humility of a dead giant. The notion took off. Suddenly everyone — or almost everyone — was attesting to Bill’s humility. By the end of the day Bill and his humility were on a par with the humility of Mother Teresa. I was too astonished to protest.
Now Bill had many virtues. In fact, he had no serious vices that I am aware of. Still this great and good man did not include humility in his repertoire of moral assets. In fact, Bill was confident to the point of arrogance. In Bill arrogance became a virtue or at least an asset, when he went up against the likes of Gore Vidal and John Kenneth Galbraith as a talking head or in debate. Both were well armored in an almost impregnable arrogance. It was only Bill’s superior arrogance — allied with wit and intelligence — that penetrated the likes of Vidal or Galbraith, revealing their essential inanity. Today Bill’s conservatism is everywhere in the ascendency. Vidal and Galbraith’s Liberalism is scrambling to survive.
Young conservatives in the 1960s were grateful to Bill for repeatedly getting the best of his opponents. He was fun. He was dashing. And he was right. Young conservatives took his cue and followed him into debating their Liberal peers, on Vietnam, the social issues of the day, and politics. They developed a style and it had little to do with humility. I mean of all the virtues humility is the one that we always found inscrutable. I can understand courage. But humility, what is the point?
When Bill began his career with God and Man at Yale he was in the minority. Then he founded National Review and marched forward. In time he had a whole army marching with him, taking on the Liberals at every turn. Some day the historians will acknowledge that by the time of his death in 2008 Liberalism was on the run and Buckley’s conservatism was chasing it. Bill was having a jolly good time, but it had nothing to do with humility.