The Bare Bodkin

Conservatism’s Ancient Mariner

In November 2005, Bill Buckley observed his 80th birthday, and his magazine, National Review, its 50th.  Both anniversaries were rather fulsomely saluted, George Will remarking that, thanks to Buckley and his magazine, the phrase “conservative intellectuals” had “ceased to be an oxymoron.”

Will’s comment was apt, but in a way he didn’t intend.  Oxymoron is indeed the sort of fancy word Buckley is notable for popularizing, but he has consistently misused it and has taught others to do likewise.  An oxymoron is not simply a contradiction in terms, as such intellectuals (including Rush Limbaugh) suppose, but a rhetorical figure, combining contradictory or opposite terms for deliberately paradoxical effect—“poorly rich,” “living death,” or “captive victor,” to use three examples conservative intellectuals may recall from The Rape of Lucrece.

Having worked for Buckley at National Review for 21 years, I came to realize, with some embarrassment, that I could not define what he, and it, stood for.  Neither could his liberal enemies, really; they might at one time (before he charmed them all to death) call him a “right-wing extremist,” but it was hard to say what he represented the extreme of.  He just isn’t an extreme sort of fellow, and never has been.  He’s...

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