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Book Review: Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes & Asides from National Review by William F. Buckley

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"The right was still reeling from its isolationist stand against F.D.R.'s engagement in the war against totalitarianism and had lost the essential argument over the expanded role of government in American life," wrote the New York Times in its 2004 review of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s literary autobiography, Miles Gone By. "The work of the Eisenhower presidency was less about undoing the New Deal and the Fair Deal than it was about managing the growth of the state. Even when conservatives' instincts were right, as they were in the battle against Communism, they seemed (with a good deal of justice) extreme, paranoid, overreaching.

"Then came Bill Buckley."

Ever since the mainstream media has joined the conservative love-in for the founder of National Review, it's easy to forget that things weren't always this way, that conservative ideas and their articulators were reviled.

Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, a collection of outtakes from National Review's popular "Notes & Asides" column, reacquaints readers with the real William F. Buckley, Jr., as his readers and fans and critics have always known him: gruff, irreverent, and characteristically impudent.

It's tough for anyone in the modern era to comprehend just how far conservatism has come since chilly November 1955. Just earlier that year, it had been declared dead — literally. Lionel Trilling in The Liberal Imagination, wrote that "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. (author's italics)"

Fifty-two years later, and not only are conservative (and libertarian) ideas "in general circulation," to be sure, but 'liberal' has become a four-letter word in the American political lexicon. William F. Buckley Jr.'s fortnightly deserves a lot of the credit for that.

Kinder and Gentler? Not Hardly

"When generations go by and you get fresh players, people are prone to say, 'Well, he isn't as civilized as that other guy.' And it's opportunistic," said Buckley in a 2005 interview with the Times, "because one has the feeling — at least I do — that they're trying to give an authenticity to their criticism, which is more easily done by making comparisons of that kind.''

Said Rush Limbaugh, also to the New York Times: ''The reason why [liberals] lament the loss of Buckley is because he was the only one then. He was not nearly the threat to the left. He was the crazy aunt in the basement. But that's why he was so important. Look what he spawned.''

When Buckley is compared favorably to the conservatives who rule the roost in the present day, Limbaugh is almost always the one compared unfavorably. But only someone lacking familiarity with Buckley's history would proclaim a man who called Gore Vidal a "faggot" and threatened to punch him at the 1968 Democratic National Convention as a "kinder and gentler" version of the supposedly out-for-blood pundits like Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly.

Wittingly or not, Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription provides a counter-history to recent narratives which portray Buckley as the sterling example of Conservatism Done Right. We see this best in a conversely humorous and heated exchange between WFB and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., when the latter declined an appearance on "Firing Line," unwilling as he was to do anything to "help" Buckley or further his worldview.

When Buckley published his rejoinder for all the world to see, Schlesinger responds, gruffly. "I do not see National Enquirer or National Review or whatever it is called, but I understand you ran your silly letter to me…in a better world I might have hoped you had the elementary fairness, or guts, to provide equal time; but, alas, wrong again."

Buckley responds in kind: "Now, suppose I had begun this letter "Dear Arthur, or Dear Barfer, or whatever you call yourself." Would I do that? No; and not merely because it's childish, but because it isn't funny."

When Schlesinger sheepishly counters that "the reason one confused National Enquirerand National Review is because they have comparable standards of wit, taste, intelligence, and reliability," Buckley goes in for the kill: "it is obvious to me that only someone who had difficulty in distinguishing between National Enquirer and National Review could have written such works of history as you have."

When Newsweek prints a story claiming that the National Review and the head of the hateful and racist Liberty Lobby "agree on about 90 per cent of their positions," Buckley doesn't miss a beat.

"This is about as illuminating as if National Review were to report that Newsweek and the Soviet Union agree 'on about 90 per cent of their positions' (health care, Social Security, educational opportunity for all…)," he begins. "What is distinctive about Liberty Lobby isn't its love of the American flag or its belief in the free market. The outstanding contribution of Liberty Lobby to the public discourse is its concern…for the 'niggerfication' of America, and its discovery that the Holocaust was a Jewish hoax."

Buckley wasn't done there, now setting his sights on Newsweek itself: "No doubt your sleepy reporter, if he disdained the breed of combatants, would have reported a lawsuit brought by the Black Panthers against the NAACP as just another nigger-fight."

And when the New York Times makes the same mistake and hails National Review and the Liberty Lobby as "two organs of the conservative movement," Buckley's acid tongue re-emerges: "Think what you will of American conservatism, but pray do not confuse it with that pestilential sheet."

By the time of the last Notes & Asides column, on December 31, 2005, the feature had begun to receive too few fitting correspondences to continue regularly, and disbanded after a 40-year run, retiring from regular appearance at the same time as its creator and prime contributor.

Buckley's command of the language and the quality of his targets — presidents, editors, pundits from his era — makes Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription a worthwhile endeavor. But Buckley's newest effort has something more to offer young writers, artists, and journalists, and that's the idea that one must trust his own voice. Anyone who tries to do anything worthwhile in life will come up against his fair share of detractors. The truly successful push forward anyway. If Buckley had taken his intellectual ball and gone home after any of the various slights in Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription's pages, America would've lost a singular literary talent, and conservatism may well have been discarded to the ashbin of history.

The Buckley who gives as good as he gets is the Buckley that America has come to know and begrudgingly respect — and a different man from the Buckley that mainstream America has come to mythologize. Those who know the difference and prefer the former won't be disappointed by Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription — even if they decline taking its editor up on his advice.

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About James David Dickson