Conservative icon William F. Buckley's death Feb. 27 brought forth an avalanche of revisionist history such as we haven't seen since Ronald Reagan passed on to spout befuddled non-sequiturs while clearing brush on that great Ranch in the Sky. I suppose if, on occasion of Reagan's death, it was appropriate to anoint him as the person who single-handedly saved the world from Communism, it follows that Buckley would receive the same canonization from the right-wing echo chamber, which is nothing if not consistent in its attempts to make more of its icons than they deserve.
But it's been amusing to witness the sheer weight of history that's been hoisted onto Buckley's shoulders. This Feb. 27 passage from Rod Dreher on Beliefnet.com exemplifies the keening and wailing: 'William F. Buckley has died. What a tremendous loss this is to American conservatism, and to American politics. The man was a giant, an absolute giant. The past 50 years in U.S. political life would have been inconceivable without him.'
Added Dreher in a later passage: 'Just this past weekend, Julie and I were talking about the time we went to the Buckleys' Connecticut house on the water, and we were both kind of intimidated by the indomitable Mrs. Buckley. Then she sat down next to Julie and they started talking about gardening, and the evil of squirrels. Pat, with her smoker's cackle, said she used to lie in bed upstairs at their place and take aim with her .22 rifle at the little bulb-eating bastards in the yard. It was hilarious to hear … this locked-and-loaded socialite talk about her adventures in gardening with gunpowder.'
I don't know about you, but if there are a heaven and hell where one gets one's just rewards, I gain some comfort from thinking of both Buckleys, tied down and surrounded by smoldering brimstone, while Pat watches helplessly as demonic squirrels scamper up and away as they munch eternally on her husband's smoked nuts.
If you think that's undeservedly cruel, then you've not been paying attention to the real William F. Buckley over the years. Looking to the mainstream press won't get you any closer to the truth either, as publications from the New York Times to The New Republic take part in white-washing St. Bill's record of intolerance.
'While liberalism was his favorite target,' wrote Jamie Kirchick on the TNR Web site, 'liberals could not find a more gracious intellectual opponent than WFB. He disarmed even the most radical activists. He seems so anachronistic now, in this age of blogs and non-stop cable news. Amidst the shouting matches, spin, and ad hominem attacks that dominate our political debate today, it's difficult to remember that a man like Buckley … ever existed.'
Perhaps he means ad hominem attacks such as the time that Buckley wrote as early as 1969 in Esquire of Gore Vidal, 'the man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [ i.e., homosexuality ] , and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.'
Perhaps Buckley hagiographers missed the 'gracious' manner in which he in 1986 called for, among other things, the denial of insurance for, and the sterilization and tattooing of, HIV-positive individuals—all while ignoring the stultifyingly obvious facts that none of those measures would halt the spread of HIV.
For anyone who thinks I'm dredging ancient history, let's move forward to his March 15, 2002, column in the National Review regarding the Catholic sexual abuse scandals:
Observed Buckley: 'Author Stanley Kurtz, writing on National Review Online, addresses the problem of a gay subculture in the priesthood by analogy. Suppose, he says, that gays were welcomed as Boy Scout leaders and proceeded to form bonds. Inevitably, some would engage in sex with some boys, and scandal would follow. Never mind that this would be so only of a small minority of the gay scoutmasters.'
Inevitably? So much for personal responsibility in the Catholic priesthood.
Wrote Buckley of Massachusetts same-sex marriage in an April 14, 2004, column: 'To argue that a constitutional amendment is radical, while acquiescence in the anarchy of the Massachusetts court is less than that, staggers the mind. It has become easier to amend the Sermon on the Mount than the Constitution, and it is strange and awful that passivity is urged in a republic of free people.'
Ah, yes, we liberals could not find 'a more gracious intellectual opponent' than this far-sighted visionary who opposed LGBT rights at every turn, who often excused anti-Semitism when given the chance to denounce it, and who encouraged the worst sort of majority scapegoating under the guise of conservative values.
It was observed of Buckley that he was just a devout Catholic following his simple beliefs—except, of course, when it came to the Church's inconvenient teachings about the poor, the sick, war and capital punishment.
What a guy.
Jeff Epperly is a freelance writer from Boston, and is a former editor of the LGBT newspaper Bay Windows.