Politicians and media have talking points, slogans, spin, speeches and loads of rhetoric. What they lack is brilliance.
“It’s the epigoni, stupid” is not a useful campaign
slogan — although, in fact, a distressingly large number of political
candidates are certainly epigoni (“a second-rate imitator”). But
William F. Buckley Jr. was a first-rate original, who founded the
modern conservative movement half a century ago, and saw it through to
victory in the 1980 presidential election and then to vindication in
the collapse of Communism a decade later.
He elevated the art of the argument to an exquisite level of
engagement – both contact and spectator sport – and put it in the
public marketplace of ideas to elevate everyone who participated. The
arena was Firing Line.
Buckley’s Firing Line offered real debate. Not
the effete insipid format-choked epigoni we witness every
presidential-campaign season beginning with some compromise moderator
laboriously explaining that under the painstakingly negotiated rules
each candidate will make a two-minute opening statement, after which a
randomly chosen rival will offer a 45-second rebuttal, followed by the
original candidate’s 30-second pre-rebuttal of the next candidate’s
re-rebuttal, followed by, etc, etc. On Firing Line, Bill
Buckley and his guests just had at it. His insouciant bravura
demonstrated week in, week out that conservatism didn’t have to be
clunky and squaresville, but could take on all comers with tremendous
Conservatism is already searching for its center of gravity in this
presidential election. Break out the writings and captured intellectual
honesty of Buckley.
Forty-nine years ago, he wrote, “We must bring down the
thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent, and salvage a
thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable.” It is an unending
struggle because, while the facts of life are conservative (as his
friend Margaret Thatcher put it), liberalism is eternally seductive.
That is abundantly clear in this election.