We Lose a Great Speaker, We Gain a Great Book

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When I was a U.S. Senate page boy years ago, we took particular delight when Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois rose to speak. He was one of the last great American orators, given to decanting recondite vocabulary from his quivering basset's jowls. Fustian emerged in a sepulchral purr.

Would he criticize an erring colleague? "I shall," Dirksen would promise, in a voice like the finest whiskey aged in fog, "invoke upon him every condign imprecation." Dirksen was especially toothsome when praising the fig newton, manufactured in Illinois. "A man who has not sunk a molar into a fig newton," Dirksen would announce, his gray-golden ringlets vibrating with emotion, "has let much of life pass him by!"

Even then, Dirksen knew that, with television, public speaking as high art had passed into decline in America. Dirksen gave oratory a humorous afterlife as self-parody, a touch of W. C. Fields. Orators gave way to communicators (not the same thing) — the geniuses of the form being Ronald Reagan and (because of his magnificent crowd sonar) Bill Clinton.

Dirksen's oratory became, in the end, something of a mountebank performance. William F. Buckley Jr., on the other hand, though capable from time to time of the polysyllabic Dirksen purr, has used public speech for the most serious of intellectual purposes, as a sharply civilized weapon, an instrument of instruction and correction. This, when one is talking politics, is unusual. A protest without a program is mere sentimentality, as a political theorist wrote. Buckley's opinions have always proceeded not from emotion but from a structure of thought — agree with it or not. He appeals to the standard of "right reason." "However caught up you are in the romanticisms which sweep the world," he suggested modestly to an audience in the irrational year of 1970, "you will not deny the occasional uses of reason."

Now Buckley, America's most distinctive public speaker, is giving up the lecture circuit in which he has labored for half a century. The good news is that he has just published "Let Us Talk of Many Things," a 500-page collection of his speeches. The book is a feast.

"Let Us Talk of Many Things" comes with dust jacket blurbs from, among others, George McGovern and John Kenneth Galbraith. Galbraith, Buckley's old pal and ideological nemesis, helps take some of the partisanship out of the proceedings by calling the book "sheer delight from humor and prose, whatever the political faith." I also am a friend of Buckley's, and I confess to viewing him through the lens of an immense affection.

Of course, you may enjoy the book more if you share Buckley's political faith (an elegantly consistent conservatism extending back to the origins of the Cold War), but it is not necessary that you do so. It will also help if you share Buckley's delight in the English language. He runs words through his fingers like doubloons. He likes to superimpose a trelliswork of formulations from the Greek or Latin (grids of the apodictic, the epistemological, the asymptotic) upon the subject at hand. Lacking the Latinate, he goes to the Latin — "pari passu," "tu quoque." Either you enjoy these linguistic plumage displays, as I do, or else you think he is merely showing off.

Buckley irritates a lot of people. He flicks his eyes like high beams at an adversary; he speaks in an accent all his own. In quarters where "elitist" is the dirtiest word in the English language, Buckley's very existence (the Bach, the ocean sailing) is a provocation. But only the captious would miss the coherence and steadfastness of Buckley's thought and work over many years. I was surprised yesterday when I read a new book of essays on America by a British journalist named Martin Walker. Walker accuses Buckley of being "self-indulgent." If Walker will explain how the word "self-indulgent" can be applied to a man who has written more than 40 books; founded and edited the magazine (National Review) that created modern American conservatism; conducted thousands of hours of interviews (for "Firing Line") that set the standard, rarely met now, for civilized discourse on American television; and has, at the same time, delivered himself, week in and week out, of thousands of syndicated newspaper columns — then I will pay Walker's passage, first class, back to England.

"Let Us Talk of Many Things" is proof, if it were needed, that for the last 50 years Buckley has been a presence — witty, scathing, philosophical, generous, often surprisingly tender — in the middle of the American conversation. Well, not in the middle; on the right, but perfectly audible elsewhere. His book of speeches is, among other things, a guided tour of the last half century. I am impressed, reading these speeches, at how often Buckley's assessments at the time have been dead-on — about Mao's cultural revolution, about Norman Mailer, about other extravagances. I like the way that Buckley stated his mission in 1964: "To hurl back... the effronteries of the twentieth century."