Good Letters

20080329-conservative-elegies-by-greg-wolfeWithin just a few weeks of each other, America has lost two of its finest sons—William F. Buckley, Jr. and E. Victor Milione—both seminal figures in the modern revival of political and intellectual conservatism.

It may seem odd that in a blog devoted to the relationship between art and faith that I would choose to eulogize two figures from the realm of political conservatism. But I have my reasons.

For one thing, it happens that from a time when I barely needed to shave until the recent past, Bill Buckley and Vic Milione were extraordinarily kind to me. They were mentors, patrons, and friends. Simply put, they gave me my start in life.

But I honor their memory here for another reason. In an era of ideological polarization and broadcast barbarism, these men stood for responsible political engagement—precisely because that engagement was drew its sustenance from deep cultural and philosophical roots. For decades they carried on their work with the sort of civility, wit, and graciousness that are conspicuously absent from contemporary public discourse.

And yet, for all their similarities, Bill and Vic were utterly different from one another. Bill was gregarious, extroverted—a born performer, whether in front of a typewriter, television camera, or harpsichord. Vic may have been the shyest man I ever met; he often looked taciturn, but when he laughed, you felt that the world had just been reprieved from imminent collapse.

Bill was famous, his life a blur of movement from sailing trips to talk shows to commencement circuit. Vic was known only to a few, and his greatest gift was his immovability.

Bill Buckley was my first boss. Fresh out of college I became the summer intern at National Review magazine, which he had founded in 1955. At age twenty, I might have been big man on my campus, but in the editorial offices at NR I felt out of my depth. Interns were allowed to write paragraphs for the unsigned editorial section at the beginning of the magazine, so I sat in on the editorial meetings. When Bill was in town he would chair these meetings, rumpled of shirt, aquiline of nose, with the trademark grin that seemed to stretch his face a bit too tight. His limbs always seemed akimbo—he would prop his legs up on the table and lean over to one side, achieving strange configurations that would have made a circus contortionist proud.

It was the summer of 1980, and Ronald Reagan was on the road to the White House. The atmosphere at NR was buoyant. But writing those editorial paragraphs was almost more than I could handle: you had to be witty, droll, and politically savvy, all at once. Bill once returned one of my efforts with a single word at the top: “Banal.” I knew at once that he was right, but I couldn’t help but feel devastated.

He may have been a tough editor, but he was unfailingly kind to me in person. Bill would write forewords for two of my books and when I sent him the pilot issue of Image he sent a check for $1000, becoming our first donor (after the initial gift that had brought that issue into existence). Nothing about Image served any immediate agenda that he may have had. That was just the kind of man he was.

Whatever one makes of his political positions, Bill Buckley served the commonweal because he cared above all about language. His love of esoteric words became something of a running joke, one that he played up to. But in a deeper sense, Bill understood that rhetoric—in the ancient sense of the judicious and precise use of persuasive speech—was the basis of a civil society. His words unified the diverse factions on the political right and made its principles accessible to the public.

Despite a strong libertarian streak, Bill’s vision was grounded in a rich, Catholic conception of life. He might have opposed Church pronouncements that seemed to rely too heavily on government solutions to social issues, but he championed the Catholic concept of subsidiarity, the idea that problems should be solved not from above, but from the local, immediate places of neighborhood, family, and voluntary association.

Vic Milione, my second boss, presided over the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—an organization that sought to defend conservatism in academia—for many years. He, too, had the ability to bring various factions together in a lively coalition. As conservatism gained political power, he was repeatedly approached by donors who promised large sums of money in exchange for ISI becoming more heavily political.

When I made some of ISI’s programs and publications a little edgier, stirring up what I thought was healthy intellectual debate, Vic stoutly defended me from those who preferred a more bland and placid approach.

Vic stubbornly resisted the lures of power and money, preferring a leaner organization to selling out. He saw ISI’s mission as the defense of the Western synthesis of classical philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Vic instinctively understood that politics can be changed only when culture changes, and that culture is enriched not by “culture wars” but by the matrix of imagination derived from art and faith.

Though I walked away from the conservative movement, I still understand the mission of Image as honoring the vision of individuals like Bill Buckley and Vic Milione. May we see their like again. Requiescant in pace. [Corrected.]

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