24 June 2009

Wills on Buckley

Half a century later it is difficult to recall that William F. Buckley and Garry Wills were once friends and colleagues at the former's National Review. This was before they parted on less than amicable terms. Given this longstanding rivalry, ending with apparent reconciliation a few years before Buckley's death, some of us may not know quite how to read Will's testimonial to one of the leading lights of American conservatism: Daredevil. On the surface it reads like an affectionate tribute, but then there's this:

Bill was not, and did not pretend to be, a real intellectual. He gave up on the “big book” that his father and others were urging him to write. For years he tried to do a continuation of José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. This had been a sacred text for his father’s guru, Albert Jay Nock. Bill took intellectual comrades like Hugh Kenner with him for his winter break in Switzerland, to help him get a grip on this ambitious project. But he told me he realized in time this was not his métier. He was not a reflective thinker. He was a quick responder. He wrote rapidly because he was quickly bored. His gifts were facility, flash, and charm, not depth or prolonged wrestling with a problem.

Bill needed people around him all the time. Frequently, when he told me he had to write a column, I would offer to withdraw from the boat cabin or hotel room where we were. He urged me not to, and as he typed (with great speed and accuracy) he would keep talking off and on, reading a sentence to me, trying out a word, saying that something he was writing would annoy old So-and-So. When I appeared on his TV show to discuss a new book of mine, it was clear to me that he had not read the book—he was given notes on each author he interviewed. Once he asked me if I had read all of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. I said yes. “Haven’t you?” He had not. I suspect that was true of the other capitalist classics he referred to, by Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Roepke, and others. He could defend them with great panache. But he did not want to sit all by himself for a long time reading them. One of his teachers at Yale, the philosopher Paul Weiss, told me that Bill was very good at discussing books he had not read.

That doesn't even measure up to damning with faint praise. But Wills is kind enough to show us the salutary influence he himself had on his former mentor, successfully breaking him of his racism, antisemitism and, eventually, even his war-hawkishness. It's nice to know that Wills was in the right all along and that Buckley might even admit it if he were still around. Of course we'll have to take Wills' word for it, won't we?

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