William F. Buckley, RIP

Did You Ever Hear a Dream Talking?

A Tribute to William F. Buckley, Jr.

By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 2008


I always wanted to meet WFB, but I never did.  One is often disappointed in meeting one’s idols, but I never thought I would ever be disappointment by WFB if I were to meet him in person.  No, it was the other way around; I thought he would be disappointed with me.


I thought this way because I always wanted to be like him, but was very far from obtaining that goal.  I believed he would be very quick to notice it.  It is not that I did not try to be like WFB.  Oh, I tried more than once.  Wise men know better than to imitate unique individuals in history, and I’ve never seen any regular citizen during day to day business imitate Johnny Carson or Ronald Reagan, and be taken seriously by anyone observing the production.


It was different with WFB.  Many a young man thought WFB could be imitated with plausibility, and many of those same men made fools of themselves making the attempt.  I was in that number.


In some ways I’ve departed from the father of modern conservatism.  I think it happened when I was in a bookstore and picked up his book on his Catholic faith.  I thumbed through it, reading passages here or there.  As a Protestant, I began to be rather annoyed at all this Catholic business.


It dawned upon me that WFB wasn’t above criticism, that he was not a demigod, and that it would be a more valuable use of my time to stop idolizing him and instead analyze his thought and treat him as firmly and fairly as any other serious thinker.


I do regard WFB as a serious thinker but not as a deep thinker.  While he could construct lengthy sentences and plug in unfamiliar words and debate and speak and appear languid and composed and unfazed by anything, this was largely at a surface level.  He, after all, was primarily a journalist and magazine editor, not a scholar or academic.  He did not specialize, and therefore did not produce any intellectual works that match those of Western history’s primary thinkers.


But it’s good when a serious thinker gets it right.  He was right to publish Whittaker Chambers’ review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a review that pointed to the extravagant humorlessness of this woman and her world-view.  He was right to reject anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories of history, the Birchers, and the atheism of some members of the old right (Eastman, Mencken, et al.).  He was also right to support military build-up during the Cold War vis-à-vis some of the more loony, pacifist libertarians like Murray Rothbard. 


WFB seems to have hit upon the right answers by instinct rather than by long, involved argumentation.  In some ways, he reminds me of G. K. Chesterton, very entertaining,  but not as in-depth as one might like.  There are only so many ironic reversals one can take from Chesterton, after all.


He spoke of the “intuitive wisdom of the founders of the American republic,” but he often veered into a conservatism based on what irascible Protestants like me would regard as a kind of reactionary Catholicism.


The first principle of statism (as formulated by none other than Aristotle) is that the state comes before the individual, that man is by nature a political animal.  A modern restatement of this was by Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray, who claimed that a political community “has its roots in history and in nature.”  Writing in a book edited by WFB called Did You Ever See A Dream Walking, Murray criticized men who “believed that a state could be simply a work of art, a sort of absolute beginning, an artifact of which abstract human reason could be the sole artisan.  Moreover, their exaggerated individualism had shut them off from view of the organic nature of the human community.”


But John Adams said: “It will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses….Neither the people nor their conventions, committees, or subcommittees, considered legislation in any other light than as ordinary arts and sciences, only more important.” 


Unfortunately, WFB agrees with Murray and calls his view an “eloquent repudiation of the French revolutionary tradition.”  Murray goes on to emphasize the tradition of natural law as the basis of “free and ordered political life.”  He says that “Historically, this tradition has found, and still finds, its intellectual home within the Catholic Church.”  Apparently, for Murray, America owes its launching to Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism is seen as alien to America’s genius.  He admits, however, that the natural law tradition “languished in the so-called Catholic nations of Europe.”


Contrary to WFB and Murray, the American Founders would have rejected the Aristotelian view, and would have agreed with Locke that the individual comes before the state.  Man is not a political animal by nature.  Rather, he becomes a political animal by way of agreement, i.e., the social compact.  In the state of nature man governs himself under natural law, and only becomes a political animal by choice.  In addition, he forms a state, not because of the horrors of nature (as Hobbes believed) but because of  nature’s inconveniences.  Thus, because they were Protestants and followers of Locke rather than Aristotle, the Founders rejected statism and traditionalism in favor of reason and constitutionalism


In the above book, WFB allowed his writers to trash Locke, and by inference, the Founders.  For instance, Gary Wills confused Locke’s views with that of Hobbes when he claimed that Locke taught that man surrenders his natural rights to a political or social “custodian” who demands “absolute right.”  Nowhere does Locke teach that man surrenders his natural rights to an absolute state.


To his credit, WFB did not fall into the fanatical Catholicism of his brother-in-law Brent Bozell (the senior one), who trashed the Founding and advocated theocracy in its place.  Instead, he favored Frank Meyer’s pragmatic attempt to fuse a “commitment to individual freedom” with the need for the “mitigating roles of tradition and culture.”  Indeed, this whole “fusion” issue reflected the tension between the older Catholic, traditionalist side of WFB and his Hayek, Mises, libertarian side.


Fortunately, this balancing act between disparate views led him to a conservatism that was not far removed from the political views of the American Founders.


He began to fade long ago.  Other publications, such as the American Spectator, provided a source for conservative thought.  Ironically, the success of Ronald Reagan seemed to place WFB more in the background as chief spokesman for conservatism in the late 1980s.  Later on, his role was further diminished during the 1990s by the success of radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, and also by political columnist and  personality, Ann Coulter.  But before Rush and Ann, we conservatives had few others to speak for us.  And WFB spoke with a wit and style and sophistication that even Rush and Ann cannot match.


Despite some disagreements, I can still say Yes we did see a dream walking, and we heard him talking, too, though now his voice is silent.  He has joined his beloved wife, and our beloved President, and they now listen in adoration to the golden voice of our Lord, the Word and the Dream made flesh.