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William F. Buckley / John Kenneth Galbraith
Friendly Opponents


Our political system is sick. Just when you think the patient is recovering, another wave of bile bubbles up. Is it any wonder that fewer of our best and brightest are willing to risk the truculent tweets and sardonic sound bites of a public life?

It wasn’t always like this.

The year was 1960. No one was more aggressive in advancing his political beliefs than the conservative author, columnist and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. And yet, at his death in 2008, he counted most of his former opponents as friends, a phenomenon sorely missing in the throes of today’s political infirmity. How did he do it?

Some hints can be found in a new book entitled “A Torch Kept Lit,” edited by James Rosen, a collection of obituaries about Buckley’s former adversaries penned by him for his National Review magazine. Buckley’s tack was to focus on the message with grace and wit, never the messenger.

Always ready with a quip sharp enough to pierce any defense, but light enough to avoid personal injury to the defender, Buckley relished encounters with darlings of the Left like economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006). Buckley once remarked about a book written by Galbraith. “I for one hope that the next time a nation experimenting with socialism or Communism fails, … Ken Galbraith will feel the need to explain what happened. It’s great fun to read.”

Galbraith, who became a lifelong friend and skiing companion of Buckley, and a perennial guest on Buckley’s long-running television show, “Firing Line,” would inevitably return fire. When asked to comment on one of Buckley’s spy novels, Galbraith said, “Mr. Buckley has a great talent for fiction, as readers of his columns know.”

Through it all, Buckley never lost his sense of humor. While making an unsuccessful run for New York City Mayor in 1965 he was asked in a news conference what his first act would be if elected. He responded, “Demand a recount.”

This kind of self-effacing style characterized Buckley’s approach to political combat, but never compromised his ordnance. He directed fire only at the issues, never his opponent.

After witnessing a year of withering discourse between wind-up candidates, I think we could use a tincture of Buckley’s tonic. Friends fight fair. It would go a long way to quell today’s political reflux.

In his book, Rosen recalled asking Secretary of State John Kerry, a Democrat, if he had ever met Buckley; Kerry responded that he had once appeared on “Firing Line” and added, “I loved Bill Buckley.” When asked why, he cited Buckley’s abiding friendship with J. K. Galbraith: “That’s what’s missing from politics today.”

For me, Kerry is too far to the left. But, this one he got right.

Malcolm D. Gibson
Copyright Jan. 27, 2017
All Rights Reserved

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