William F. Buckley: the loyal son

A new interpretation of Buckley’s legacy—one that would have surprised the man himself.

David Frum ’82, ’82MA, a former presidential speechwriter, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a commentator for National Review Online.

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After denouncing the university in his first book, William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 (shown here in 2004) became, over the decades, a walking symbol of Yale. View full image

Like thousands before and after me, I first met William F. Buckley because of Yale.

A group of us from the Yale Political Union had invited the conservative magazine editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. to come talk to us. Tyrrell generously accepted -- and asked if he could bring his friend Bill Buckley along with him. We students were thrilled, of course, and on the appointed date Tyrrell and Buckley rocketed up from Sharon together. "Rocket" is really the word. Driving was one unique activity where Bill made up in speed for what he lacked in exactness and subtlety. Tyrrell stepped out of the car looking a little wobbly.

For dinner, we students had booked a restaurant on Chapel Street called the Old Heidelberg (long-ago, and deservedly, extinct). Buckley, presciently distrustful of undergraduate taste, had taken the precaution of bringing with him -- not his dinner, he would take his chances on that -- but his wine: six bottles of 1967 Haut-Brion.

It may seem strange that I can still recall the exact vintage all these years later. I suppose that's because I was so amazed by what happened next: Buckley tipped the waitress at the Old Heidelberg to open the wine -- and then poured out this amazing juice to a table of young men whose usual beverage was Dr. Pepper.

Even more amazing was what Buckley did after that: he put searching questions to the students at the table and listened patiently to what each of us had to say. Under his interrogation -- and illuminated by his wine -- we all were made to feel as if our self-conscious ramblings amounted to something like . . . intelligent conversation.

That was a quarter century ago. I would go on to enjoy many more conversations with Buckley. Yet none has ever lingered in my memory like that first one.

I suppose the memory owed as much to where we were speaking as to what was said. William F. Buckley Jr. began his career as Yale's most famous dissident, the author of a coruscating attack on the school for the collectivism of its economists and the lack of Christian mission in its administrators. Three decades on, Buckley had become as much a symbol of Yale as Dink Stover.

In his style of dress, his mannerisms and jokes, Buckley preserved a vanished era of Yale's past. At least, I think he preserved it -- but then again, since I never met anyone who behaved quite the way he did, it's also possible that the whole persona was his personal invention, as exotic to his classmates in 1950 as it was to me.

Buckley had rebelled against Yale. And yet Yale formed him and defined him. I have never met any other adult who cared about the editorial line of the Yale Daily News. Or who would so cheerfully address the Yale Political Union. Or who accepted a Yale BA as of-right permission to cease addressing him as "Mr. Buckley" and graduate to the cherished "Bill."

In return, he formed and redefined Yale. Before 1950, it would never have occurred to anyone to regard Yale -- or any of the other great Ivy League universities -- as anything other than "conservative" institutions, in every possible meaning of the word "conservative." The presidents of Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and so on ranked among the great pillars of the land; the university chaplains epitomized American religious orthodoxy; the student body was overwhelmingly drawn from the secure and the propertied. If this was not "conservatism," what on earth could the word mean?

It was William F. Buckley who first argued that the word "conservative" could and should mean something very different from the accepted use -- that there could and did exist some important sense in which institutions like Yale had ceased to conserve the nation and the civilization that had created them. Yale and places like it had long become accustomed to criticism that they clung too firmly to the past. Here for the first time was an intellectual voice chastising them for not clinging to the past nearly firmly enough!

In this, Bill Buckley started a tradition. He would be followed in due course by many others. As so often happens, each would-be successor fell progressively further and further short of the original innovator. For what these later and angrier and louder voices never understood about Bill Buckley and his God and Man at Yale was that his critique was a critique written in love.

If Buckley's followers often misunderstood him, so too did his many and ferocious critics. With its attack on Keynesian economics and its championing of Yale's Christian mission, God and Man at Yale is today remembered as an unbendingly reactionary book. And yet in one important way, at least, Buckley's notorious book should be seen not as the last gasp of a bygone Yale but as the first harbinger of the new Yale.

Look again at Buckley's call for Yale to return to its "Christian" mission. Yale's Christian mission had historically been of course a fiercely Protestant one. This Protestant mission and Protestant identity infused much of Yale's angry first response to the young Buckley.

Buckley's accusations of irreligion so offended the Yale authorities that they convened a special panel to investigate, under the chairmanship of Henry Sloane Coffin. If any single man personified the American WASP ascendancy, Henry Sloane Coffin, Yale College Class of 1897, was he: heir to a furniture-making fortune, a Bonesman, pastor of the Madison Avenue Church in New York City, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), president of the Union Theological Seminary, brother of the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Et cetera.

And what was Henry Sloane Coffin's response to God and Man at Yale? In his memoir, Miles Gone By, Buckley quoted from a letter that Coffin had (as Buckley said) "incautiously" written to a concerned alumnus. In the letter, Coffin said that Buckley "should have attended Fordham or some similar institution." Some similar Catholic institution. In other words: if you don't like how we do things, Mr. Buckley, perhaps you should have stayed among your own kind.

With God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley was audaciously claiming that a Catholic could speak to Yale with all the rights of an insider -- rather than with the grateful deference appropriate to an outsider. In time, similar claims would be made by Jewish students, by African American students, by women, by gays, and by the children of the great post-1970 immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Many (not all) of their particular claims would have appalled the author of God and Man at Yale. And yet those claims were also anticipated and to some degree made possible by him. A strange outcome -- but then again, maybe not so strange. At once reactionary and rebel, conservative and iconoclast, religiously orthodox but culturally heterodox, a man of the 1950s in his politics but a man of the 1960s in his literary sensibility, Buckley was a man of many dimensions.

We are all better and greater for his life and work. And if he never stopped caring for Yale, it is fitting that Yale decided, before it was too late, to laud him by conferring an honorary degree in 2000, the 50th anniversary of the graduation of this great and good man, this loving and loyal friend, this devoted and difficult alumnus. 

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