I do not share William F. Buckley’s political opinions. But I still celebrate his idiosyncratic respect for the written and spoken word and his superhuman facility for the English language. His vocabulary seemed ripped straight from the OED, and when I read his columns I think not of his 21st-century torchbearers in the Reaganite conservative movement but of Vladimir Nabokov, a writer who shared Buckley’s linguistic fortitude.
Both men took on the role of commentator and critic rather than of firebrand revolutionary. Neither shied away from controversial topics for the sake of decency (pedophilia for Nabokov, as the entire world knows, and racism for Buckley, as survivors of the ’60s will remember).
The difference is that Nabokov disavowed the unsavoriness of his characters. His fictional academics and chess champions were his creation, and it was his right to distance his own views—on literature, politics, or entomology—from theirs. He gently insisted upon this authorial privilege.
Buckley, on the other hand, hewed to eccentric erudition in every debate and column. He built a new conservatism while playing a character, and never owned up to being anything different. It is this flawless portrayal for which many grieve today: an American dandy with the untroubled affect befitting an East Coast oilman’s son, outclassing his detractors with “a piquant blend of British intonation and Southern drawl.”
Had William F. Buckley not written his way into the public eye through the National Review, he might well have found his way there in a Nabokov novel.
I’ll leave you with a link to an essay from Buckley, in which he compares his use of highfalutin words in composition to the choice by a musician to use a more complicated chord. As a jazz singer myself, I can particularly appreciate this analogy.
“I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words,” by William F. Buckley, Jr.