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William F. Buckley, who passed away yesterday, was of my father’s generation. Buckley was considered the premier promoter of mainstream conservatism (some would say arch-conservatism) in the United States. My father, who could not have been more different From William F. in terms of worldview, was still able to admire Buckley’s style while largely rejecting his substance.  

Buckley preached a particularly distressing brand of close-minded conservatism that brooked no arguments. The founder and head of the magazine National Review, he  promoted ideas that seemed to me to be outdated, outmoded and outflanked by the realities of our post-Cold War world.

The salient point is that Buckley knew how to debate, or rather, he knew what it meant to have a debate of ideas that didn’t involve wallowing in the muck of personal diatribes. Well, perhaps that’s not entire accurate: Poor Howard K. Smith of ABC news got far more than he bargained for when Buckley and Gore Vidal exchanged insults on live television during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley called Vidal a “queer” and threatened to plaster his face…well, you get the idea.  

And yet, for the most part, he was, in public and apparently in private good-natured and good-humored. His weapons in the war of ideologies were words, many-layered, little-used representatives of our language strung together in graceful phrases inflected with his uniquely patrician voice. Not for him the rude, crude, simple-minded hate-mongering that passes for dialogue on today’s broadcast and Internet forums. 

The obituaries this morning seemed to rise to the occasion; Buckley might have been pleased. The Chicago Tribune wrote of Buckley’s “brilliant mind and Brobdingnagian vocabulary” and the Times  referred to him as the “Sesquipedalian Spark of (the) Right.” I’m embarrassed to say I needed help with the supersized words but I now know (or perhaps remember from an earlier encounter) that  Brobdingnagian, meaning “out-sized or colossal”, derives from Brobdingnag, the fictitious land of the giants in Gulliver’s Travels  by Jonathan Swift. Sesquipedalian refers to using long words, a trait Buckley shared with my father. Maybe that’s why I feel something has been permanently lost; some connection to a faraway and long-ago place where people could discuss, debate, disagree or argue with style and wit and then go out together for drinks.

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