Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Governor Listeth, by William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley Jr. was a gifted polemicist, best-selling novelist, sesquipedalian speaker, television star, political candidate, yachtsman, harpsichordist, wit, and bon vivant. He also had an abiding love for the paperback book.  When the paperback edition of any of his books was released, his publisher would send him a box full of them.  After his death in 2008, the folks at National Review began the task of cleaning out his office and his salon in NYC.  They found numerous unopened boxes of his books and eventually put many of them up for sale.

This is how I happened upon The Governor Listeth: A Book of Inspired Political Revelations, a big (nearly 500 pages) collection of WFB’s best columns, speeches, obituaries, and other writings from the late 1960s. Here we find Buckley near the height of his powers and in the form, I think, that suited him best. I have nothing against his longer books (Up From Liberalism, God and Man at Yale), but the short form of columns and speeches let Buckley swoop in and dive-bomb his subjects with his trademark wit. You can almost hear him smile as he twists the knife.

Is it worth reading a book of columns written in the 1960s? Yes and no. There are some sections, particularly those on Vietnam, that won't hold the modern reader's interest very long. But the collection opens with a speech on political violence, delivered in 1968 after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr and John F. Kennedy, but before the murder of Robert Kennedy, that is well worth reading. He says, "[M]ore significant by far than the ghastly executions of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King - acts committed by isolatable and isolated men - more significant by far is the spontaneous universal grief of a community which in fact considers it aggrieved. That is the salient datum in America: not that we bred the aberrant assassins of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but that we bred the widely shared and the most intensely felt sense of grief: such grief over the loss of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. King as is felt over the loss of one's own sons."

Buckley's reporting of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions are excellent examples of his reporting style.  Those sections were among my favorites in the book.

I received great joy from some of the non-political essays in this book. For example, his column on the Apollo 8 mission entitled "Can Men Make Miracles?" is near poetry. I've never sailed much outside of tooling around the bay on vacation, but "A Week Aboard Cyrano" makes me want to hop aboard a yacht and sail down to Bermuda.

The title of the book comes from the Bible (James, chapter 3):
In many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
A great sentiment to invoke for a book by Buckley. The Governor Listeth is Chairman Bill at the height of his powers.

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