Seeking WFB.

December 5, 2012

Originally published in the paper of record, David Welch’s recent essay is below – sans editing, because he hit the nail right on the obvious and common sensical head.

It is a shame that William F. Buckley Jr. passed away in 2008. The conservative movement could use him — or someone like him — right now.

In the 1960s, Buckley, largely through his position at the helm of National Review, displayed political courage and sanity by taking on the John Birch Society, an influential anti-Communist group whose members saw conspiracies everywhere they looked.

Fast forward half a century. The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.

Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”

But his biggest challenge came from the far right, primarily in the form of the John Birch Society. During the 1950s and early ’60s, Birchers demanded that the government rid itself of supposed Communists — including, according its founder, Robert Welch (no relation, thank heaven), Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Buckley’s formula for conservative success rested on “the most right, viable candidate who could win.” He saw the danger the Birchers posed to the party, and in 1962 he wrote a devastating essay in National Review that condemned them for essentially calling on the party to commit political suicide. He dismissed Welch’s outrageous views as “drivel” and “removed from common sense.” The essay relegated the Birch Society to pariah status. Buckley may have saved the nascent conservative movement from the dustbin of history.

The absence of a Buckley-esque gatekeeper today has allowed extreme, untested candidates to take center stage and then commit predictable gaffes and issue moon-bat pronouncements. Democrats have used those statements to tarnish the Republican Party as anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-gay, anti-immigrant extremists. Buckley’s conservative pragmatism has been lost, along with the presidency and seats in Congress.

Republicans must now identify those who can bring adult supervision back to the party. Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.

Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.

Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush are ideally suited to drive extremists from the party. While some say Mr. Christie’s praise of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy hurt him politically, in fact it cemented his role as party truth-teller. In conjunction with his spirited defense of Sohail Mohammed, a State Superior Court judge who was absurdly attacked for allegedly wanting to impose Shariah law, Mr. Christie should be celebrated by sane people everywhere.

Mr. Bush, who once bravely stated that Ronald Reagan would have a hard time fitting in with today’s Republican Party, likewise has the position and gravitas to weigh in and weed out the Todd Akins and Sharron Angles of the world.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Christie best represent realistic, levelheaded conservatism. Both have crossed the aisle numerous times to the betterment of their states. Yet they enjoy sterling reputations in the party. This occurs when common sense trumps partisanship. This is not to say that the only way forward is by tying the party to bipartisanship. But it does mean a willingness to fight those who claim the name of the party but not its ethos.

In a recent interview, the bête noir of both the left and the Tea Party right, Mr. Rove, suggested that his organization, American Crossroads, might become active in Republican primaries during the next election cycle. If Crossroads and the old-guard Republican committees sided with sensible candidates early on in the primaries and, if need be, ran ads against extreme members of the party, they could do much to bring some sense back to the Republican landscape.

Our modern-day Buckley’s denouncement of once fringe Tea Party candidates should be forthright. Whether it’s Bush, Christie or a party institution, there must be one clear message: no unserious candidate need apply. Party leaders should seize this moment as Buckley did decades ago. It wasn’t easy. He lost subscribers and donors. But inveighing Buckley went, weathering the storm to keep his party poised for future victories.

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Vidal Re-visited.

August 3, 2012

An earlier post this week (below) dealt sufficiently with the passing of Gore Vidal. That done, this one will be brief.

During their lives, Mr. Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. engaged in a running cultural debate that sometimes spilled the banks of civility and swirled into litigation. Each represented an opposite swathe of politics, though each represented his swathe in similarly patrician tones and wordy verse. As years went by, the contention was reduced from roiling boil to gentle simmer – at least, it was for Mr. Buckley. He left their enmity in the 1970s.

Mr. Vidal did not: having outlived his old adversary, he wrote on the occasion of Mr. Buckley’s death “RIP WFB – In Hell.” Not only hateful, but terribly un-literary for a man who paid his bills by writing.

Mr. Vidal’s inability to let by-gones be by-gones might have owed, at the end, to his own historical inadequacy: he was always a gnattering cultural and political critic, but never a mover in his own right.

On the other hand, Mr. Buckley launched an intellectual journal that exists still, and which propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House; the nascent conservatism he fostered gave rise to David Brooks, George Will and more. He hosted a political talk show, Firing Line, for three decades. He was awarded a Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Busch. He did not observe politics; he helped shape it. And when he died, it was an event. Newspapers and print media carried Mr. Buckley’s picture for weeks. A memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan; Henry Kissinger spoke.

Mr. Vidal, conversely, left America decades before his death to live on the Amalfi coast. When he died, most people hadn’t thought of him in years. No sitting president called his family to offer condolences. No relative’s best-selling memoir about his exploits was written. His obituarial star burned brightly for 24 hours, then sputtered and went black.

But somewhere aboard a sailboat high above, Mr. Buckley may have noticed his old rival’s departure from the stage, and politely dipped his sails. He could afford to be gracious; in the battle for relevancy, he had won by a landslide.


Gore Vidal Dies, Will Likely Write Memoir About It

August 1, 2012

Yesterday evening, Gore Vidal, the man thereafter described by USA Today in its remembrance of him as a “celebrated author,” died. It is understandable that news media might, out of respect for the dead, recklessly bestow laurels like “celebrated.” “Tolerated” might have been more accurate. “Suffered,” more still.

Mr. Vidal was born at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father was an early instructor in aviation. His mother was an actress and socialite, two vocations which became one in her late son: Mr. Vidal acted the public intellectual for the sake of social climbing. For a man possessed of such disdain for the social order as that which he professed, Mr. Vidal made a handsome living for many years on his connections, including the Auchincloss blood he shared with Jacqueline Kennedy.

Though he once swore to avoid writing about himself, the oath was discarded in favor of self-promotion and financial interests: Palimpsest, a 1995 memoir, was followed in 2006 with Point to Point Navigation, another memoir. How many memoirs does one man need? One more, apparently: between those two, he interspersed the humbly-titled Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal.

It was enough to support a home in the Hollywood Hills, where Mr. Vidal was in residence at the time of his death.

Throughout a career in which he pridefully fancied himself a man of belles lettres, he built the majority of whatever name recognition he still possessed at death on smarm, snobbery and effetely effected intellectualism. His was a grand claim – Mr. Vidal saw himself as co-equal with (or, more likely, superior to) the likes of public intellectuals Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Norman Podheretz, Noam Chomskey and the remainder of that celestium.

In either respect, he was entirely incorrect. His was not an incisive, illuminating or productive wit; it was bitter, caustic and devoid of elegance. The man was, intellectually and personally, petty and small. The late essayist Christopher Hitchens, once a promoter of Mr. Vidal’s interests, had recently, before his own death, bemoaned the fact that his later writing sufered from an “utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity.”

If there is one lasting contribution Mr. Vidal made to American culture (which, like any self-respecting artistic egotist, he abandoned for European soil), it was his 1968 televised appearance with Mr. Buckley, whom he repeatedly called a crypto-Nazi, prompting the second most well-known retort in the history of television from Mr. Buckley: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.”

(The most well-known retort in the history of television being Senator Loyn Bensten’s famous line: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”)

The New York Times reported today that Mr. Vidal considered himself an Augustan figure, the last of a breed of writers and jocular, urbane men of letters. That paper is likely correct in describing Mr. Vidal as the last of the breed; the real shame is that the breed had to end on such a low note as Gore Vidal.


Authenticity, Lyford Cay & The Prole Gape

January 31, 2012

Yesterday’s post, an article concerning the fears of decline surrounding an influx of vulgarity to the staid Bahamas enclave of Lyford Cay, occasioned today’s rig, a belated memorial to William F. Buckley, Jr., in which his death is described as an ascendancy to that great Lyford Cay Club in the sky.  

When William F. Buckley Jr. went to the great Lyford Cay Club in the sky a year ago today, an era of authentic WASPy style died with him. If you want to get technical about it, Buckley wasn’t really a WASP (because he was Catholic, not Protestant), and his wasn’t so much style as anti-style, but in the decades when he rose to prominence as a conservative provocateur par excellence, such distinctions waned in importance.

“Being a WASP has nothing to do with religion or money,” author Susanna Salk declared last year in her preppy-stuffed picture book A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style. [Editor’s Note: Sure, in the same way driving a car has nothing to do with being licensed.] Rather, she said, it’s all about getting the look right. Whether Buckley would have agreed is debatable, but there he was on page 84, clutching a copy of God and Man at Yale, his button-down rumpled and repp tie askew, a picture of pure prep imperfection.

Old clothes “advertise how much of conventional dignity [the upper classes] can afford to throw away,” author Paul Fussell noted in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. “The wearing of clothes excessively new or excessively neat and clean suggests that your social circumstances are not entirely secure.” That was, of course, never a problem for Buckley, whose “pleasantly disheveled and informal” look (as described by protégé Gary Wills) was rivaled only by that of his fellow patrician and friend, George Plimpton.

That’s not to say Buckley’s clothes weren’t well made. Fussell points to an episode of Mr. Buckley’s long-running show Firing Line, in which he interviewed an oafish Texan of decidedly humbler origins. The Texan’s jacket collar “gaped open a full two inches,” Fussell writes. “Buckley’s collar, of course, clung tightly to his neck and shoulder, turn and bow and bob as he might.” His genteel shabbiness, thankfully, did not extend to an inclusion of “prole gape.”


WFB: Fads Be Damned.

July 29, 2011

Excerpted piratically, but gratefully, from National Review:

(From a question and answer booklet issued by The Alumni Council of Princeton University, June 1, 1958.)

QUESTION: Why don’t Princeton undergraduates look as glossy as they used to? Is it because the admissions people frown on well dressed, social-looking young men?

ANSWER: Certainly not. Since the war, Princeton undergraduates, like those in other colleges, have gone out of their way to wear beat-up clothes. It’s a fad the GI’s started.

If I had been permitted to butt in with the next question, I’d have asked, “What would you do if the next fad called on the students to go about naked?” The answer would presumably have been as evasive as the first, probably something like, “My dear sir, there are laws against indecent exposure.” To be sure, and there are none against wearing sweat shirts in a venerable university eating hall, or in a classroom where the lecture that morning may be on the age of elegance; none, even, governing dress in fraternity houses where, it is commonly supposed, it is the elite who meet to eat. The reason? Rules affecting a student’s dress are . . .

But let me relate an experience. At Yale, ten years ago, there gadded about a distinguished professor of philosophy with a mania for equalitarianism. Notwithstanding, he was himself a man of personal taste, of imposing countenance and erect bearing, and one day he decided it would be reasonable to expect members of his college (undergraduate Yale is quartered in ten colleges) to come to dinner at the college dining hall dressed in coat and tie. Accordingly, he laid down the edict. Hours later, a student had summoned fellow members of the college student council in extraordinary session to devise appropriate means of resisting the act of tyranny. In due course the president of the council appeared before the guileless master and announced that it was the consensus of the student council that the ordinance he had passed was undemocratic. The master did not reply (such a reply would not have occurred to him, even as a lascivious possibility) “Tell the student council to go—eat democratically some place else.” No, our professor of Philosophy simply rescinded his order, aghast at the revelation that, albeit subconsciously, he had entertained an Undemocratic Thought.

It is the knout of Democracy that is most generally used to flail those who believe the administrators of a college are entitled to specify, nay should specify, norms of undergraduate dress. The economic argument, implausible though it increasingly becomes, is still widely used. It holds that coats and ties are expensive, that therefore the uniform requirement that they be worn daily, and hence worn out prematurely, is a form of regressive taxation. The argument is unrealistic because in point of fact ties do not cost very much, and coats made out of a tough material will outlive even a pauper’s inclination to wear them.

It is something else, really, that prevents the deans and masters from acting. They fear, in an age of permissiveness, the howl of protest. The dean of the Graduate School at Yale said recently, “The attire of students is incredibly sloppy. It would be fine if we could get away with a rule requiring ties at all meals. A good thing to press for in my retiring years.”

Must we wait until the Dean retires? Let us hope not. Meanwhile, I make a few observations. The first: Does not insistence on a minimal standard of dress reflect a decent respect for the opinions of mankind? The same community that insists that one pay at least a procedural respect to the opinions of ideological aberrants can hardly be expected to shrink from deferring to society on the appropriate means of clothing one’s nakedness. Even in the world of getting and spending, for whose coarseness a considerable contempt is stimulated in many colleges and campuses, coat-and-tie is a prerequisite to participation. The Beats who indulge their sloppiness as a symbol of their individualism can take the measure of their hypocrisy by reflecting on their imminent surrender — effective on the day they graduate into the world of commerce in which, almost to a man, they fully intend to spend their lives. The young graduate who informs Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Beane that to require coat and tie is undemocratic, can expect a most un-Philosophic reply. I doubt, going further, that there is a Princeton undergraduate who would presume to call on Jack Kerouac without coat and tie. If disorderly attire is a genuine symbol of personal independence, then the college generation should stick by their symbol at least a few decorous weeks after the ink is dry on their baccalaureate degrees. If it is not that, then dishevelment is what it is: a blend of affectation and laziness.

The second point for the academic community to think over is the matter of authority. Is it theirs to stipulate a minimal standard of dress? Professor Joseph T. Curtiss of Yale said recently, “Respectful or respectable dressing is a characteristic of adult society. Some people are born gentlemen, other people acquire gentility during life, still others must have it forced on them.” The tendency is to depreciate the beneficence of externally imposed norms of civilized behavior. There are many who, like myself, would, if left alone, permit our standards of personal dress to deteriorate to the level of the downright offensive. Conscientious members of society — and I include here, intending no offense, administrators of our colleges and universities — should not permit us to indulge our disintegrative proclivities. Coat-and-tie is merely a symbol. It could be courtesy; deference; reverence; humility; moderation: and are these not, all, the proper concern of a college administration? Is there a relationship between a faculty’s weakmindedness, and a student body’s disorderliness?


Watering Holes: Anthony’s Bar

May 4, 2011

10 S. Broadway

St. Louis, Missouri

(314) 231-7007

Cribbing from recent Pulitzer Prizer Joe Rago of the Wall Street Journal, “there is something out of time about lunching” at Anthony’s Bar. Mr. Rago turned the phrase in describing his luncheon with William F. Buckley, Jr., in New York City, but we’ll take it; standing on the shoulders of giants, etc.

Saint Louis, Missouri boasts exactly one restaurant worth three Michelin stars: Tony’s, a redoubtable Italian institution down-town on Market Street and Broadway, near the river. The Bommarito family has run it for generations and, in years past, ran also a small waiting room on the ground floor of the office building in which it operates. The room was originally a reception area for dinner guests, who could sit in one of the bolted-down leather stools around its oblong, polished wooden-slat bar and have a drink while their tables were made ready.

The reception area was one small room, two stories tall, fitted out in floor-to-ceiling wood, that oblong bar in the middle and a handful of lower circular tables around it. Two-story blackout curtains cut outside light, keeping things clubby. One white-shirted barman worked the counter, one white-shirted waiter the tables. That waiting area became Anthony’s, a restaurant in its own right, some years ago. The Bommaritos still run it, and thankfully keep it stubbornly athwart decades. Service at Anthony’s moves as quickly as fossils turn into gasoline.

Today, Anthony’s is open mainly for lunch: lawyers and bankers generally, blue shirts with white collars and cuffs. Tasselled loafers or maybe horse-bits, alligator belts, that crowd. Occasionally it’s open after ball games, too. The menu is, put generously, spare: three kinds of hamburgers (plain, with cheddar cheese, or with Bleu cheese), a beef tenderloin sandwich, a Ceasar salad, a daily special. Sometimes soup. Old-fashioned glass Coca-Cola bottles, the small ones. Every table gets one glass bowl of Lay’s baked potato chips, unlimited. “Out of time” is an apt description; a time capsule unto itself, more so.


Notes & Asides

March 25, 2011
  1. The first President Bush read Bill Buckley, the second read Rush Limbaugh. This says as much about each author (in Limbaugh’s case, a charitable term) as it does about each President.
  2. Per Twitter: why do people who write so poorly insist on writing so often?

William F. Buckley, Jr. (left) & President George H.W. Bush