The Common Good

The Downstream Media and the Death of Political Civility

The passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy has brought forth many reflections on his ability-regardless of his reputation as the archetypal Massachusetts liberal-to engage in both spirited debate and bipartisan compromise. This called to mind a figure on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

When my father-in-law called to ask if I wanted a copy of Christopher Buckley's memoir about his parents' death, Losing Mum and Pup, I stole a look at the pile of books awaiting review and the stack of manuscripts seeking blurbs. I clutched a bit, but then I agreed. My father-in-law, now retired, is a discerning reader, and although his politics lean considerably to the right of mine, I've rarely been disappointed with his reading recommendations.

I hold no brief for the ideas of William F. Buckley, Christopher Buckley's father. Even if you concede that the conservative revolution that William Buckley initiated was a necessary course correction in American politics, we'll be cleaning up the damage of the last 30 years for a very long time. Given the circumstances of the book, Christopher Buckley is, for the most part, remarkably honest and unsentimental about his parents (although the reader has to deal with the author's occasional dewy-eyed references to Ronald Reagan and -- egads! -- Henry Kissinger).

The William F. Buckley that emerges from the pages of his son's memoir is a man of fierce intellect, devout Catholic faith, and (somewhat surprisingly) irenic spirit -- something that seems to have been lost in current political discourse. What I found most striking about the book is William Buckley's strong and enduring friendships with those on the far left of the political spectrum. I had known about his long friendship with liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, but it appears that the elder Buckley also befriended other liberals, including my own hero, George S. McGovern, former U.S. senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.

After news of William Buckley's death became known, Christopher Buckley was sitting in his father's study when the phone rang. The younger Buckley recalls the moment: "A gentle, sandpapery voice came on the line: 'I'm looking for Christopher Buckley.' Yes, this is he. 'Oh, Chris, it's George McGovern calling.'"

Christopher Buckley recounts that his father had savaged McGovern during the 1972 campaign but that they later become good friends after engaging in a series of debates. Christopher Buckley writes: "I remember Pup grinning one day over lunch, announcing, 'Say, have I told you about my new best friend?' (Pause. Twinkle of the eyes.) 'George McGovern! He turns out to be the single nicest human being I've ever met.'"

The ability to see and to appreciate the humanity of one's ideological opponent seems to have been lost in the current political climate. I was not a regular viewer of Buckley's Firing Line television program, but my recollection is that Buckley was, certainly, a formidable debater, but he never (or at least rarely) stooped to ad hominem attacks. More important, he engaged the argument of his adversary rather than reducing it to caricature or merely raising his voice to drown out other voices.

Compare that to what passes for political discourse these days, especially in the Downstream Media. I remember when I first heard Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on the radio. What struck me most (aside from the fractured logic of their arguments) was that nearly all of the callers were sycophants. "Mega-dittos, Rush!" was the standard opening. Or, "Sean, you're a great American!" What followed the fawning praise was a softball question that allowed the host to continue merrily on a peroration against liberals or "femi-Nazis" or some such. And if a dissonant voice did somehow manage to finagle its way past the screener, the host would shout down the caller and hang up rather than engage the argument.

Not so with Buckley. He allowed his ideological opponents to express their views, and he engaged the arguments -- all the while regarding the other as a real person rather than a foil. And, in more than a few instances, that ideological opponent became a friend. In one case, the political adversary turned out to be "the single nicest human being" Buckley had ever met.

As lawmakers from both sides of the aisle honor the legacy of Sen. Edward Kennedy for his ability to engage in vigorous but respectful debate and legislative compromise, ideologues, right and left, should also take a lesson from William F. Buckley.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School.

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