Wednesday, April 03, 2024

The Incomparable Mr. Buckley, on PBS

When I was a kid, all the real intellectuals were conservatives. They were scholars like Allan Bloom, economists like Milton Friedman, theologians like Richard John Neuhaus, jazz critics like Ralph de Toledano, and first and foremost, William F. Buckley Jr., who in addition to being a commentator, was also a concert harpsichordist and spy novelist. In contrast, the left was a you-grease-my-palm-I-grease-yours alliance of unions and special interests seeking handouts and payoffs. They have not changed much, but the right has—and not for the better. Arguably, Buckley was the movement’s indispensable man. Director-producer Barak Goodman chronicles Buckley’s life and career as the chief strategist and spokesman of American conservatism in The Incomparable Mr. Buckley, which airs Friday as part of the current season on American Masters.

Even as an undergraduate, Buckley a troublemaking intellectual. He entered Yale as part of the first class to overwhelmingly consist of fellow returning WWII veterans and he left with the material for his first bestseller,
God and Man at Yale. Non-left-wingers were a fractured lot, divided into religious traditionalist, libertarian capitalists, and hawkish Cold Warriors, but Buckley united them into a reasonably cohesive coalition through their opposition to Soviet expansionism and oppression.

Buckley played a critical role as Conservatism’s gatekeeper and arbiter of legitimacy. He famously excommunicated the conspiracy theory-mongering John Birch Society, while trying not to alienate their more casual followers. Goodman skips over Buckley (and his
National Review colleague Whittaker Chambers) similarly dismissing Ayn Rand and her Objectivists, probably because they were never as consequential on the national political stage. Over the last ten years, we desperately needed another William F. Buckley, but there was only one.

Goodman and the disembodied voices of his commentators give the
National Review editor his due credit for building the movement and guiding it to a spectacular victory when Buckley’s friend ally, Gov. Ronald Reagan, won the presidency and ultimately the Cold War. Yet, it is not hagiography. Incomparable takes a tough look at some of the positions Buckley staked out during the Civil Rights Era, but it provides a much fuller perspective than did Best of Enemies, Morgan Neville’s Buckley vs. Vidal doc.

covers most of the important events in Buckley’s life, such as his CIA service, his long tenure on Firing Line, and his gadfly campaign for New York City mayor. It also reminds us of his recently deceased brother James Buckley’s service as U.S. Senator, the first to politely, but firmly, request Nixon’s resignation, for the good of the country.

Perhaps fittingly, the most prominent voice in
Incomparable, is his son, Christopher (who shares his father’s wit). We also hear from historian Lee Edwards and NR alumni Richard Brookhiser and Jay Nordlinger, as well as an assortment of journalists, who clearly represent different positions on the political spectrum. Listening to Buckley in his droll and erudite prime reminds me why I identified with conservativism for so many years. I still identify with Buckley’s conservatism and that of NR (both then and now). Recommended as both political and cultural history, The Incomparable Mr. Buckley airs Friday (4/5) on PBS.