Open Letter To America -
The Last Great Republican

By Robert McDougall

Follow Up To 'An Open Letter To America'
Following an emotional diatribe I penned a few days ago on concerning the sad state of affairs of the American nation and its current government, I received hundreds of e-mails, a number of them condemning me as obsessively anti-American, not to mention pro-communist.
Well, it's true I took a huge strip off America, personifying the country as a kind of out-of-control leviathan that is vicious and corrupt. My intention as a critic from abroad was to try to cut through the famous self-centeredness of the national psychology to a point where some few Americans might consider more closely the current, atrocious goings on around them.
My 'Open Letter to America' plainly raised hell. Yet it does not wholly or adequately represent my feelings as a Canadian toward the big gorilla to the south. I grew up loving America. My mother was born there. I have friends and relatives there. I have traveled extensively throughout the United States and even worked in New York City as an advertising copywriter for a stretch in the mid 1990s. The country has always been a wonder to me.
In a sense, I am like the wounded lover. Angered by the awful changes wrought by time in the one I once adored, I strike out with hyperbolic castigation.
Of course, America and Americans cannot be lumped together as wholly evil. There is greatness still in the land. But do not look for it in the Bush administration or any of the malignant agencies and business interests that are trying to increase their bullying and menacing influence over the citizenry. America's greatness today remains where it always has: with unique, free-spirited individuals. And it is on this note that I would like to talk about one of them.
Call it a casual homage. And take it as proof that as a Canadian I am neither a complete Yankee basher nor a communist.
I remember that as a high school lad in the early 1970s nothing could come between me and a television set Sunday afternoons when Firing Line and the inimitable Bill Buckley Jr. bristled on screen.
Though his arch conservative opinions occasionally appalled me, I nonetheless admired his braininess, his deft conversational skills and, of course, his odd but charming theatricality; that kinetic tongue dancing this way and that; those amazing eyes rolling back in his head, reminding me of nothing if not a crazy shark on the attack.
Nor, can I forget those rumpled but always stylish suits of his in the classic Brooks Brothers vein: modest lapels, button down Oxford-cloth shirts and narrow ties - always in subtle, muted tones.
His clothing seemed to take on a life if its own as he wriggled and shifted about in his swivel chair on Firing Line. Fabric would twist into abstract clumps. Cuffs would crawl up pale calves to reveal crumpled socks. In the process, at any given time during the course of a debate with anyone of any rank or status, he would stretch his limbs freakishly like a house cat oblivious to all but its own comfort.
Such gall. Such self-confidence. Such? style!
Buckley did the same as a guest on The Tonight Show and merely blinked when Johnny Carson mugged. 'Take me or leave me,' Buckley's gestures said. 'I just don't give a damn.'
And then there was the man's vocabulary. The signature. The polysyllabic phantasmagoria. The first word Buckley ever introduced me to was 'intransigent.' To this day, and quite appropriately for a Taurus I suppose, I use the word in place of 'stubborn' whenever opportunity permits.
I used to think of Bill Buckley as an American aristocrat and an eccentric Yankee gentleman, a rarity among the brash conservatives of his generation (and subsequent generations). He was educated at Yale. He edited his own magazine. He was rich. His wife was a celebrated New York socialite. He owned a splendid yacht and was a skillful sailor. He wrote novels. Wow.
Though he was always a show off and a snoot, he was so unusually artful in the construction of both his persona and his life that he could be forgiven his weak points.
By the time I entered college in Calgary to study journalism, I was so taken with the man that I developed a spoof called Inspiring Line in the form of a serialized cartoon strip. Here, William Chuckley Jr. took on my fellow students, most of them co-workers at the student newspaper The Reflector and many of them avowed communists.
One cartoon strip played off of a televised confrontation between Bill Buckley and the splendid writer Gore Vidal, whom I understood to be an undeclared socialist and bi-sexual. Once, during a heated debate, Vidal referred to Buckley as a crypto-Nazi. Buckley responded by calling Vidal a pink queer, or something to that effect, then threatened to bash in Vidal's face on the spot.
In my cartoon feature, Chuckley threatened to beat up the far-left leaning editor of The Reflector, a slovenly, bearded man-bear called 'Stinkin' Nick' by my coterie.
I was already in my career an indefatigable (thanks again Bill) libertarian. At a time when many of my contemporaries were suggesting that we hold Canadian University Press conferences in either China or Cuba as a show of support for these nations, I was 'in solidarity' with Buckley on a host of issues concerning communism (Vietnam excluded). The Chinese and Russian governments were scum, and history proved it in the Gulag, Tibet and elsewhere.
Of course, Buckley sometimes went too far. Well beyond the pale, in fact. I am reminded of his suggestion once, a long time ago, that America ought to consider the nuclear option for China. Still, I had to admire the man for promoting individualism and its democratic benefits over collectivism and its totalitarian evils.
Buckley was one of a kind and certainly open-minded as a conservative. After all, his guests on Firing Line included individuals who, if they were alive today, would hardly receive the air time Buckley so graciously provided. Imagine the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg talking about LSD and singing mantras on Crossfire. Think about a session with Bill O'Reilly and novelist Jack Kerouac as the latter quaffs booze on camera and makes a drunken ass of himself. Forget it.
To steal a metaphor from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Buckley stomped on the American tundra.
Come to think of it, Buckley got quite a charge out of Hunter Thompson's antics, too, way back when 'gonzo journalism' was topical among America's media savants and fear and loathing gripped the United States during the unfortunate reign of Richard Nixon.
That's the thing many liberals, and for that matter many conservatives, could not quite grasp about Bill Buckley. He could quickly warm to individuals others would dismiss out of hand. Hunter Thompson is a perfect example.
Buckley knew a free spirit and a lucid mind when he saw one. He admired Thompson despite his anarchic craziness. Buckley himself was always a free spirit. There was something of the mischief-maker in him. He enjoyed rubbing elbows in improbable ways and he had fun carousing with high-profile shit disturbers and odd balls.
He was far more tolerant than many liberals dared to admit. Just because he also happened to have a healthy respect for meritocracy did not make him an unregenerate elitist or a bigot. It simply made him a believer in giving credit where credit is due.
Consider liberals in the form of Norman Mailer and Hugh Hefner. Buckley was certainly taken aback by the views these men articulated in Advertisements for Myself and The Playboy Philosophy. Yet he got on well with Mailer and Hefner. If memory serves, he even visited The Playboy Mansion.
Now there is something wonderful in this thought even if images of Buckley cavorting with Bunnies in Hef's grotto strike a preposterous note.
Actually, it is most unlikely Buckley gamboled with even so much as a domesticated Ostrich on Hefner's property. But it is easy to imagine him holding court in the uber-playboy's living room amid Hollywood liberals dumb struck in his presence for want of scripts or cue cards.
Plainly speaking, Bill Buckley was an American who admired others for their individuality. Call him the Howard Rourke of the conservative media set. Any psychologically honest soul with half a brain who strove to live life on his own terms could earn Bill Buckley's respect. In so many ways, he was a tolerant, clear-headed realist and, yes, an egalitarian.
He also demonstrated political heroism of the highest order, thankfully without tragic consequences.
Who for instance among Republicans or Democrats, including especially the craven hypocrites Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, has had the audacity and the strength of character to finally call a spade a spade in relation to that calamitous 30-year folly called 'The War on Drugs'? Bill Buckley had what it takes.
He called for the decriminalization of drugs and for this alone I and many others in Canada admire the man more than we can say. I have always believed that no man has the right to tell another what he can or cannot take into his body, particularly if what he ingests derives from the good earth. The notion that a human being should be imprisoned for years simply because he possesses, or has consumed, plant substances or derivatives is utterly ludicrous.
Years from now, if we as a species do not obliterate ourselves first, we may look back to The War on Drugs as one of the most ridiculous enterprises ever undertaken by humankind. We may look back and see that Bill Buckley told us so in no uncertain terms.
Is there a conservative soul in the broadcast media today who is even remotely capable of filling Bill Buckley's Oxfords? Who can America look to now for words and arguments that so beautifully enliven, rather than deplete, the American spirit of freedom and self-determination?
Must America turn to acidic whelps such as Tucker Carlson from Crossfire? Egad! Someone ought to stuff that wee bow tie Carlson sports up his sycophantic nose (for some men, certain charming traditions shall forever remain out of reach no matter how far the stretch). The truth is, Crossfire is a bloody circus, all noise and emotional acrobatics. Not a news program but an 'entertainment.' I cannot bring myself to watch it or much of anything else on television anymore.
And do not talk to me about Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly carrying on any tradition remotely approaching that of the noble, erstwhile editor of The National Review. They are but ghosts of Godfather Bill. Indeed, issues of substance are a joke among these men. Nothing is taken seriously despite loud claims to the contrary. It is all a carnival sideshow undertaken purely for effect, ratings and money.
It is only time and the full-scale dumbing down of American culture that has given the new, noisy pugilists of the right high ratings on radio and television.
Now, I have been speaking posthumously about Bill Buckley Jr. Of course he is still with us, but he is considerably toned down. Today he writes columns about the trouble with book publishing. He appears on late-night cable chat shows and plays classical piano pieces. Yet he is aging well. His charm has not diminished even as his frailty has increased. It's one of the curious things about style that it truly is forever.
Today, the syndicated columnist and author of almost 50 books is 'retired.' Editor-at-large, they call him at The National Review. Firing Line is an archive and old Bill has become a stately elder in a country where few give much of a damn about stately elders anymore.
Among many of the young, supposedly well-educated business people I encounter today in cities throughout the United States and Canada, Buckley generally is unknown. Like other estimable media personalities of the last century, Walter Cronkite and I.F. Stone for instance, he has become an antique curiosity.
Yet William F. Buckley, Jr. burned brightly in his day. And he is not without surprises still in the columns and opinions he continues to provide us. Blessedly, he is still capable of bursting forth onto the scene and holding many of us in thrall with his extraordinary clarity of thought and unqualified wisdom. Witness his excoriation of Ariel Sharon recently.
I last saw the man on one of those late-night talk shows some time ago. The host asked Buckley what troubled him most in life. 'Growing old,' the septuagenarian said. I sensed a hint of grumpiness that implied he would take issue with God himself on the matter when the time comes.
Isn't that just like William F. Buckley Jr.? A man always ready to debate a point. He is a treasure in a sinking American ship. Probably the nation's last great Republican.
No need to get all sentimental, though. There is so much to celebrate in any Bill Buckley retrospective -- and no one will ever convince me otherwise.
Indeed, in this I remain intransigent.
Robert McDougall -- Biographical Notes
Robert McDougall formerly worked as a journalist with The Albertan - a retired morning daily in the city of his birth, Calgary -- and as a Canadian stringer for The Globe and Mail and United Press International. Today he is an advertising copywriter based in Toronto. Among other professional distinctions, he has been awarded a Gold Clio and honoured through permanent placement of his work in the advertising art collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. His paternal Scottish ancestors were keepers of The Coronation Stone.


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