The Well Tempered Clavier
I was married in March, 1968 and was able to leave my small one-room affair for a real apartment. With a TV even. We would live there until I finished law school in 1971. And it was there I discovered “Firing Line” on the local public access station. It was that show that introduced me to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2 .
William F Buckley loved Bach.
It was in that same apartment that I watched WFB take apart Gore Vidal during the GOP and Democratic national conventions. You see, Buckley’s “National Review” was a child of the 1950s and the Cold War. I doubt if any man ever hated Joseph Stalin more than William F Buckley, Jr.
Although Stalin was just as dead as Adolf Hitler, unlike Hitler’s monument to himself, Stalin’s was still alive and kicking, Buckley (and most conservatives of that era) considered Stalinism to be a very real threat, the Vietnam War its latest iteration. A few right-wing baiters drew notice of this deference paid to Stalin (their secret hero) versus Hitler, so tried to paint conservatism as “Nazi”. So when we are called “Nazi” today, it’s nothing new.
Gore Vidal showcased this tact in this memorable “discussion” with Buckley during the Democratic convention in Chicago. (Fireworks start at 10:02 mark.)
So I was a fan before I ever really seriously read WFB’s magazine. Thank Bach and his well-tempered clavier.
I read NR as often as I could get my hands on it, at the post library in Japan but didn’t subscribe until I came back to Arizona in ’76. Reader-friendly, if you liked an article and wrote to say so, the author would send back a short reply.
I wrote several “Letters to the Editor” and a few to WFB. He always replied, sometimes in just a few words. When I returned from the USSR in 1992 I wrote WFB and asked if he truly meant that comment about the first 200 names in the Boston Telephone Directory. His answer was four words, “You bet I did.”
As you may know, I’ve used that simple reply to serve as a way to define the widening gap between the intellectual right of the 60s-70s about its handshake with the common, ordinary America people, and the demonstrated disdain many of the writers at National Review have shown for those same “reasons the Constitution was written in the first place” since William Buckley’s passing in 2018.
William Buckley reflected the deeper supplications of the heart of most conservatives today, when he threatened to bash Vidal’s face in.
But he never did, nor, I suspect, would he.
God knows’ I’ve encouraged people to sneak down dark alleys and throw something larger than tomatoes at the profane likes of provocateurs on the Left right here in these pages. But for targeted purposes.
But as George Carlin said of Mohammed Ali when he refused to be inducted into the military, “I’ll beat ’em up…but I won’t kill ’em.”
I can’t recall why, or even the exact date, but in the early 90s after I returned from the USSR, and had opened some substantive correspondence with WFB about my observations there in the winter of ’91-’92, I wrote him a letter, and asked him a sober question:
Reminding him that Joseph Stalin had been raised in the church, even attending seminary, did Buckley think it conceivable that, as he lay dying, Stalin might have called for a priest to make his last confession?
Is it conceivable that an all-knowing God might forgive the murderer of millions as easily as He would one who’d only killed one person and repented?
A devout Roman Catholic, I last asked Bill Buckley what he would do if, while walking through the lilies of Paradise, he should spy Joseph Stalin walking toward him, stretching out his arms to embrace him. Would he embrace him back?
Buckley replied, “I had never thought of that, but short answer, yes, God can do that.”
He never answered that last part of my question.
I wrote a short essay a few years later, after I moved to Virginia, and as a lawyer, opined that the sins of Hitler and Stalin were different, for one killed out of hate and the other out of process. I went onto argue, and still do, that he who kills by indifference, out of process, is the greater killer.
But at no time did I ever presume to deny God the power to forgive if asked.
In the modern context, this brings to light the art of Twitter Apologetics, not Christian apologetics, trying to bring God to the godless, but rather merely trying to drive Satan away from them.
Baby-steps, which is what it seems we deserve as a society.
This “art form” is not new. Bernard Chumm, my old friend from RedState days, practiced it on a few left-wing sites that allowed open comments. He could go for days, stringing some alienists along, the sole purpose not to beat them or save them, but to merely sow seeds of doubt in what they thought they knew and cause them to go back to their closet and take a second look, and themselves.
Bernie confided to me, “There’s no victory in this. There’s no altar call at the end of the sermon, no confession of sins, no counting of heads of souls saved, or even souls shown a door away from the Devil. It’s the loneliest sort of missionary work, to seek, and probe, then push that one button that might cause them to pause, and go back to their closet. Then you go onto the next, never knowing about the last.”
This is our penance, for never in the past 200 years has the name of God or Jesus been a bigger turnoff in polite society. We caused this, we allowed this, so now we have to take back the high road, one yard of asphalt at a time.
Today Twitter is where you encounter them, no longer the comment section at The Hill.
David Limbaugh, Rush’s brother, seems to have grasped this new form of apologetics better than most. Always probing, knowing it’s likely just one-and-done, he uses a prod instead of a dagger, but always in keeping with his higher calling. I like that, for while he tries to show atheist another door, he also reminds us that there are doors that there are doors we are denying to ourselves, especially younger conservatives, and boatloads of MAGA Trumpers whose intemperance (called teat-fitter where I come from) use the same adjectives for Jeff Sessions as they do the CNN editorial staff. And aren’t even the least bit squeamish or self-reflective about condemning John McCain’s soul to hell.
As Bill Buckley believed about Joseph Stalin, that had he asked God for forgiveness, it could have been granted, because it was His sole power to do so. (I’m sure Buckley believed, or at least hoped, Stalin would never have asked. But once placed in God’s (exclusive) hands…..
So it is, then, even as we believe John McCain deserves the fires of hell, we cannot consign him there, not to mention at least a thousand or more tedious little ass-holes on Twitter, including a few at National Review and other so-called conservative pundits.
David Limbaugh is right, as a supplication of our hearts, pulling them away from the fire is the better way.