Friday, February 29, 2008

An Early Hero

On Wednesday, when William F. Buckley died, I lost one of my unlikeliest but earliest heroes. I first ran across the writing and speeches of Buckley when I was about 16 and spent my high school and college years devouring much of what he’d then written, including his political commentaries, his Blackford Oakes spy novels, and his sailing accounts. I subscribed (much to my mother’s chagrin) to the National Review and regularly watched Firing Line. I did so, not because I found any individual piece of writing so captivating or because I agreed with what Buckley was saying. In fact, except for his comments made in 2006 about the war in Iraq, I can’t think of anything political that Buckley ever said with which I agree. Instead, I was impressed by the breadth of his knowledge and the keenness of his wit, the open and questioning tone he set on Firing Line as he listened to those—be they conservative or liberal-- with whom he engaged intellectually, and the zest he seemed to have for a true intellectual life. I look at political commentators these days and find no one else (not even George Will who seems to aspire to be Buckleyesque figure) following in the path of inquiry and intellectual debate (as opposed to the political maneuvering and snide closemindedness of most of today’s TV political commentators) that he forged. I try to think of contemporaries who live life with the kind of renaissance passion that Buckley did and I come up empty-handed. While in more recent years I’d given up reading Buckley’s writing religiously, his presence seemed to me an assurance that there were those who might yet find ways to move beyond the superficiality of things into a true dialogue of ideas. His death saddens me deeply.

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