William F. Buckley: the founder

<i>1950 Class Book</i>

1950 Class Book

Buckley at the News building. The 1950 Class Book declared, "Perhaps the 1950 board will be remembered longest for its chairman's stormy and positive editorial policy. . . . The editorials . . . were read by everyone, and it was impossible to be neutral about them." View full image

Buckley's extracurricular hyperactivity was possible because he accomplished so much with mystifying ease. Some News colleagues put in ten hours a day at the paper -- "gave up our education," as Guinzburg, the managing editor, later said. But Buckley was often on the premises no more than three hours a day and seldom more than five, and this included the time he spent writing his daily editorials.

More remarkable still, he succeeded in the classroom. Classmates I interviewed half a century later were dumbfounded to learn that his four-year average in those pre-grade-inflation years was 85. His abilities were apparent from the start. While many freshmen spent long nights in Sterling Library, struggling to adjust to the demands of the Yale curriculum, Buckley coasted until exam time and then, drawing on his bottomless reserves of disciplined energy, sped to the tape: 90 in English (close reading of prose and poetry); 90 in Classical Civilization (the Greeks in translation); 85 in Sociology (study of comparative cultures), and a prodigious 96 in fourth-year Spanish. This last wasn't surprising. He'd learned Spanish in childhood, from Mexican house servants. His command of the language was so great that, owing to the faculty shortage amid the massive influx of veterans, Buckley was hired as an instructor in Yale's Spanish department—a salaried position he held during his entire time on campus.

None of this meant he was a natural scholar. On the contrary, Buckley was a painfully slow reader, who found even routine assignments hard to complete and compensated by listening closely to lectures and taking careful notes (helped by his mastery of speed-writing). In some classes, he got by on wit rather than learning. In his "preface" to a three-part paper on "various aspects of Christianity," Buckley warned his philosophy professor, Paul Weiss, that he was "vastly unread" in the subjects under consideration and would "strive to make no references whatsoever to other works or thoughts of other men." After fumbling for 34 pages through free will, teleological design, and good and evil, among other immensities, Buckley at last conceded he had no idea what he was talking about: "I yearn to understand, to make intelligible the great confusion of our world and to accommodate every phenomenon into the God-created, God-supervised world which I have been taught to believe in and which, after reflection and torment, I choose to continue to believe in." Just what he meant by "torment" he did not say, though it did not send him to Aquinas, Hume, Kant, or any of the other giants who had illuminated the very subjects of his essay.

It scarcely mattered. The lucid force of his prose, duly noted by Weiss, compensated for the unexamined ideas. In his early 20s Buckley was on the verge of a mature literary style. He was later to master the art of polemical argument, wielding a show-off's vocabulary larded with borrowings from logic and rhetoric—"maieutic," "sylleptic," "soritical," "enthymeme," "apodictic." As a student, his success rested more firmly on a gift for well-paced idiomatic prose with a pleasingly light touch. "My first product was, it seems, a flop," he wrote in another of his "prefaces," this one to a paper on Thomas Macaulay written for Lewis Perry Curtis's English History course. "Mr. Curtis, I grieve to admit, knows more about Macaulay than I do, which is to say, at this writing, that Mr. Curtis, Macaulay's Mother, and I know him best. . . . Perhaps by narrowing my scope, I can narrow the scope of my critics." In other words, he hadn't read past Chapter Ten of Macaulay's History of England.

In January 1950, Buckley's News editorship came to an end, though its legend endured for many years. In 1966, when Garry Wills ’61PhD was writing a profile of Buckley for Esquire, he asked Francis Donahue, the man Friday who since 1922 had groomed a succession of News chairmen, if Buckley had been the best of the lot. "Were there others?" the tart-tongued Donahue replied. "Well, if I had to choose, I would rank the first three: Bill, then Potter Stewart, then Sargent Shriver." He added, "That doesn't matter—being best chairman. More important, if I had my choice of all men—including the Pope—and could pick just one to be my brother, I'd take Bill. I never worked with a more considerate or fairer man. He would cut anything out of the Newsto make room for arguments against him."

Buckley had one last assignment, organizing the News's annual banquet. The guest of honor was to be President Seymour, who had announced his retirement the previous spring. Buckley, with his instinct for political drama, lured a glittering roster of university presidents who all promised to speak: James Conant of Harvard, Harold Dodds of Princeton, James Killian of MIT, Dwight Eisenhower of Columbia, and Harold Stassen of the University of Pennsylvania. The last two were potential candidates for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. Their presence attracted reporters from the national press, including the New York Times and Life magazine.

Speaking after these eminences, Buckley made the evening's boldest statement. He attacked Yale for betraying its conservative tradition, pointedly directing his comments at the six university presidents in the room. "In the name of freedom of inquiry, American colleges, more interested in topical interpretations of liberalism than in affirming the truths to which they pay lip service, hire renowned scholars who proceed to devote their time to advancing their own theories about Christianity, which at best they epitomize as sociologically useful, at worst as superstition and fraud." But if Christianity was fraudulent, then "so is our civilization. So are our standards. So are our morals which become nothing more than useful adjustments to an exacting environment, valueless except insofar as adherence to them may better our positions in this world, which is itself the end of our experience."

"I don't see eye to eye with you on some pretty important matters, specifically your anti-democratic authoritarianism," Theodore Greene, the master of Silliman College and a self-described liberal Protestant, wrote Buckley the next morning. "But I do want to tell you that you did a superb job last night. You managed to state your convictions, on an occasion that must have seemed to many of your listeners very inappropriate for such a pronouncement, with great directness, sincerity, and humility."

Thus encouraged, Buckley decided to make his case even more strongly two weeks hence at the annual Alumni Day celebration, an event that this year would include the dedication of memorial tablets in Woolsey Hall to Yale men killed in World War II. Two of the speakers were Edward Greene Jr. ’24S, chairman of the Alumni Fund, and Stuart Symington ’23, secretary of the Air Force. For the third, Seymour selected Buckley.

It might have seemed a curious choice, given Buckley's history of provocative utterances. But "he was an excellent speaker," Seymour later explained, "and although he had been critical of Yale and other institutions his attitude seemed to spring from an idealistic urge."

Two days before the ceremony, Buckley handed a draft of his remarks to the director of the University News Bureau, who asked, "What are you saying in it? Nothing, I hope." In fact, Buckley had chosen this occasion to make his most direct assault yet on "the University where extremes of thought are presented." Up till now, his criticisms had been confined to generalities -- to the overall climate of education at Yale. But this time he was directly accusatory, drawing perhaps on the example of a new political sensation, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who two weeks before had alleged that the U.S. State Department had been massively penetrated by Communists. Buckley, too, now seemed intent on naming names. He sharpened his critique into barbs aimed at specific instructors: the historian Ralph E. Turner, "a professional anti-Christian," and Charles Lindblom, "who urges modified socialism upon his students."

Seymour was alarmed. Buckley's text, an all-out "indictment of the administration," would give alumni the false impression that Yale was "communistic." Buckley offered to change a few paragraphs but not the substance. He also offered not to speak at all—even, he recalled later, to write a speech of the "'good old Yale' variety." No, he was told. Yale had singled him out; it was an honor and would not be revoked. Buckley sent a note to Seymour, justifying his remarks, and was invited to the president's office. Seymour told him he now accepted Buckley's offer to withdraw. He could, if he wished, speak on another theme. But his attack on Yale was inappropriate to the memorial service for "our Yale dead."

Buckley declined, but warned the administration he wasn't done: "I shall naturally continue to agitate for reform along the lines I mentioned; it is the only course open to a person who sincerely believes adoption of his views stands to benefit Yale."