William F. Buckley Jr was a significant public figure in post-war America, known in particular for his founding of the conservative journal, National Review, his syndicated columns in more than 200 newspapers, and his weekly TV program, Firing Line.
He was also a devoted reader of Chesterton – as this article reveals. Dr David Deavel lectures in Classics and Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota), and edits LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. His article appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of Gilbert, the journal of The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and is reprinted with the kind permission of the Editor of Gilbert, Dale Ahlquist.
The Gilbert magazine feature, “Chesterton is Everywhere,” would have been a doozy if it had existed in 1970.
In that year William F. Buckley, Jr., founder and editor of the journal National Review, newspaper columnist, spy novelist, television talk show host, inveterate skier, sailor, and harpsichordist, former CIA operative, and one-time political candidate, managed to bring GKC’s name into Playboy magazine in an interview.
Reacting to a question about the youthful rejection of traditional religion, Buckley declared it difficult to take seriously the youngsters’ rebellion since they couldn’t even be bothered to read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or any books by C. S. Lewis.
Orthodoxy was, for Buckley, the greatest apologetic work. He quoted it in his own writings on faith, often commenting on Chesterton’s discovery that the philosophy he had invented had been there all along in the Apostle’s Creed.
In his spiritual memoir, Nearer My God (1997), Buckley marvelled at how “illuminating” Chesterton’s imaginative question is about what society would be like if it were not for “such lapidary postulates as dogma gives us concerning the uniqueness of the individual human being and his obligations under God to his fellow man. We can condemn the Inquisition or slavery, but it was under Christian assumptions that such evils were criticized and often overturned.” Elsewhere in the book he cites Chesterton’s lines about “the wild truth reeling but erect.”
It wasn’t Orthodoxy alone that fascinated him. In Nearer My God he quotes passages from Chesterton’s essays read while visiting Lourdes.
In Cruising Speed (1971), he says that though Christianity is foreign to most of the British, a “spiritual experience” is available to those who go to Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge, or High Mass at Chartres, or read Scripture.
Failing that, he advises: “Read a volume by Chesterton—The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, The Dumb Ox —and the spiritual juices begin to run. . . ” But Chesterton’s account of his “elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious” was clearly the most important.
Buckley’s son, Christopher, who rejected his father’s faith, recalled in his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup (2009), his father’s method of spiritual formation: “When I was younger and periodically confessed to him my doubts about the One True Faith, he dealt with it in a fun and enterprising way: by taking me off to Mexico for four or five days, during which we would read aloud to each other from G. K. Chesterton’s great work of Catholic apologetics, Orthodoxy.”
He labelled such trips “Not a bad way to restore one’s faith, really.” After such a period of sipping margaritas to the soundtrack of Elfland, “I was content to shrug off my doubts about the Immaculate Conception or the Trinity.”
Buckley’s own Catholic faith was rock solid. The sixth of ten children, he moved with his father, oil man William Frank Buckley, Sr., and his mother, Aloise Steiner Buckley, to Mexico early in life. Though he became famous for his astonishing English vocabulary, his first two languages were Spanish and French.
He was home-schooled until high school when he was sent to St. John’s Beaumont, an English Jesuit prep school. He studied for one year at a Mexican university and then attended Officer Candidate School before being commissioned as a lieutenant in the US Army, in which he served during World War II in the United States.
After the war he went to Yale, working as an FBI informer while taking honours in his studies and taking part in the secretive Skull and Bones Society. Upon graduation, he married Patricia “Pat” Taylor, a Protestant and the daughter of a Canadian industrialist.
He was recruited into the CIA, in which he served for two years in Mexico. He later turned his knowledge of spy craft to useinaseriesofnovelsfeaturingagentBlackfordOakes.But his first literary success was polemical, an attack on his alma mater for its secular progressivism: God and Man at Yale (1951).
By 1955 he had started National Review, which he would edit until 1990 and which served as the house organ for conservatives for many years. His television show, “Firing Line”, on which he demonstrated both his debating prowess and his exotic vocabulary as he interviewed figures left, right, and centre, began in 1966 and became the longest running show of its kind with a single host.
Asking for a recount if he won
A Chestertonian producer, he wrote 5,600 iterations of his syndicated column, On the Right, and produced fifty books.
Always a writer and political organizer, he dipped his toes into electoral politics in 1968 with a run for mayor of New York, famously declaring that the first thing he would do upon victory would be to “ask for a recount.”
Despite his combative qualities, “Bill,” like Chesterton, had a number of friendships with political and philosophical opponents, including Murray Kempton, John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ACLU head Ira Glasser, and even George McGovern. They all knew of his love for Chesterton, too.
Upon Karol Wojtyla’s election as pope in 1978, Moynihan wrote to Bill, “Did we get the man you hoped for? I hope so. He likes Chesterton.” Garry Wills, whose first book was on Chesterton, started out on the political right at National Review and then migrated leftward. After migration, he suggested that National Review was a CIA operation. To soothe Buckley’s anger, he sent Bill some Chesterton books.
A lover of the Traditional Latin Mass, Buckley died at 82. He was buried next to his wife in Sharon, Connecticut.