“Getting To Know WFB”: Joe Sobran`s Last Testament

Peter Brimelow writes: Earlier this year, a mutual friend let me know that Joe Sobran, although ill, offline and phoneless in an assisted living facility, had rallied to the point where he wanted to express a more considered view of William F. Buckley than he had offered in his emotional obituary, which had apparently contradicted so completely the critique that he had developed since his firing from National Review in 1993. I was delighted to offer a venue, but I noted that VDARE.COM`s focus on immigration would require him to offer his views on Buckley`s adoption and then abandonment of the cause of immigration reform, and his purging the magazine of those of us who were associated with it, in 1992-1997. Joe agreed.

We sent him the books he asked for. Needless to say, he promptly lost them. We sent them again. But his article, when it came in, did not explain his obituary and completely ignored the immigration controversy. I complained and he wrote a little more, but then passed along word that he would not work further. By then we were embroiled in our spring financial crisis and, exasperated, I put the article aside.

Looking at it now, I wonder if I was too harsh. The article is somewhat off-topic for VDARE.COM, but at least it reiterated Joe`s very belated formal conversion, which he credited to the influence of Pat Buchanan, to the cause of patriotic immigration reform—something that some of his obituarists, for example Larry Auster, seem to have missed.

And above all, the article showed Joe`s great affability of heart. Dying, penniless, betrayed by his mentor, abandoned and shunned by his long-time colleagues, he still wrote of them, clear-sightedly perhaps, but with the generosity and warmth that Jared Taylor noted at the end of his VDARE.COM obituary.

Joe Sobran was simply not a hater, despite what Auster, David Frum and even some timorous admirers seem to think. The same orneriness that caused him to ignore editors led him to defy, and keep defying, regnant taboos. It`s not the same thing. I hope to finish writing my own reflections on Joe shortly.

We reprint Joe`s last article under his original title and will send the fee to his estate.

I wrote for Bill Buckley`s National Review for 21 years, from September 1972 until September 1993, and I knew him so well that I assumed nobody could tell me much I didn`t already know about him. How wrong I was. Two intimate books written about him since his death in 2008 have reminded me of Richard Whately`s fine aphorism: “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge”.

The two books are Christopher Buckley`s Losing Mum And Pup and Richard Brookhiser`s Right Time, Right Place: Coming Of Age With William F. Buckley Jr. And The Conservative Movement. I have known both authors well; but I had no inkling of the turbulence of their relations with Bill. It should be no great surprise when there are tensions and quarrels between parents and children, even if you haven`t been privy to them. And you can hardly blame a man for idolizing his mother, for filial illusions are among the most pardonable. But Chris`s revelations, I hear, have angered some of Bill`s friends.

But to pardon these sentiments is not the same as sharing them. Chris Buckley is not alone in thinking his mother a lovely and witty woman. She died a few months before Bill did; they had been married for fifty-seven years. He is entitled to praise her “class” and to credit her rather than his noted father as the chief source of his own humor.

I can only add that my own most vivid memory of her is not a very happy or creditable one. In the 1980s I sat across the table from her at a banquet, which Bill was unable to attend.

Throughout the evening, Pat spoke only to her companion, a witty homosexual named Marvin Liebman. And the conversation would have made Joe Pesci blush. Pat gave the f-word quite a workout. As the meal progressed, I winced to think of the impression she was making for her absent husband. When the dinner broke up, I heard one of the other diners marvel to her own husband, “Can you believe that was Bill Buckley`s WIFE?”

In fairness to Chris, I should mention that he does speak of Pat`s tendency to make ugly scenes and to tell outrageous whoppers. And Chris`s own daughter Caitlain sounds like a lovely and gracious young woman. Yet Chris insists that Pat was wholly devoted to being a good wife to Bill.

That aside, Chris tells us everything we could possibly wish to know about the kidney ailments that, along with diabetes and emphysema, helped to end poor Bill`s life. And Chris gives us endearing glimpses of Bill`s closest friend from his Yale days, Van Galbraith (no kin to the economist). To know Van was to love him; he barely survived Bill.

Rick Brookhiser, tall, handsome, and smarter than anyone has a right to be, for some years was Bill`s young heir apparent as editor of National Review. His portrait of Bill is loving, yet frank; no puff job. Until I read his book I had no idea of the fiery passions between him and Bill, by whom he sometimes felt betrayed. He was far from the only one.

His treatment of me is generally much too kind. This isn`t modesty speaking; it`s two-fisted conscience.

Married to a psychoanalyst, Rick is a mite glib with terms like paranoid, which sounds less diagnostic than accusatory. Is it a symptom of mental illness to believe that Shakespeare was a pen name? Or that neoconservatives scheme to get the U.S. into wars in the Middle East? (Two so far, and the worst may be yet to come.) My usual fault has been excessive trust.

Rick`s book abounds in keen observations and delicious quips; I could hardly put it down. But he fails to see how Bill helped deform conservatism into the adulteration we call neoconservatism, a vastly different thing. (That story is fully told in John F. McManus`s piercing 2002 study of Bill`s career, now unfortunately out of print. [For Mcmanus` obituary of Sobran, see here]. The John Birch Society understood Bill better than his admirers did, and Bill`s own mother was a Bircher. Rick dismisses the Birchers as “paranoids”.)

But his short analysis of Reagan`s charm as a speaker is a masterpiece. If you read only one page of this book, make it page 86. It is genius, which I define as the ability to do something nobody else can do.

Rick calls the great economist Murray Rothbard a “crackpot”. Well, nobody`s always right, but Rick usually has more generous sympathies. Murray`s mind was both profound and playful. Anyone who can delight in Bill Buckley should have found Rothbard a joy.

I could never fathom Bill`s admiration for Henry Kissinger, who saw constitutions and laws only as regrettable obstacles to necessities of governing. When I asked him in late 1990 what the first President Bush should do about Iraq if Congress did not declare war, he answered immediately that Bush should go ahead and make war anyway. Well, at least that was a candid answer, without Kissinger`s usual gobbledygook. Bill seemed to love Kissinger for his most odious traits. I have difficulty imagining Kissinger on a convivial ocean cruise with Bill and the guys.

Rick is also wrong about me and the Jews, as so many people have been. Being a full-time Jew-hater is hard work, much too hard for me. I was indeed revolted by Bill`s fulsome philosemitism, and I now joke that I`m working on a children`s book titled The Littlest Holocaust Denier, but my real object has always been to keep this country – and especially my own family—out of war.

I saw thirty years ago that we were headed for needless war with the Arabs, and I had two boys in their teens. By 1991 I hated Bush with a murderous fury. He was willing to get young men like my son Mike killed for no clear reason. I didn`t want them dying in the Middle East, where we always seem to be defending democracy and freedom these days.

Nobody else at National Review seemed to have this worry.

I was so fond of John O`Sullivan that he and I both laughed when he fired me (I`d pretty much forced him to by writing a column slamming Bill). This was some years before Bill gave John himself the axe, an episode I wasn`t privy to.

But by the time I left, Bill had lost touch with the movement he had done so much to shape and misshape. His political radar was even poorer than my own. He was miles behind Pat Buchanan and others in seeing that immigration, for example, would become a red-hot topic. Time and again, Pat has shown a rare prescience.

You have to bear in mind that when Bill came to man`s estate, the Republican Party was still the party of Eisenhower, McCarthy, and Taft. At the end, Bill was still writing books about that era. (A novel about Joe McCarthy in 2005, for Pete`s sake!) No wonder the neocons overran National Review so easily as he snored.

Bill has left a confused legacy. Many people, thanks in part to him, now equate conservatism with militarism. It may take a generation to clear that up. Even George W. Bush couldn`t have made this mess all by himself.

Joseph Sobran (1946-2010) spent 21 years working for National Review, 18 of those years as senior editor. From 1994 to 2007, he was editor of SOBRAN`S: The Real News of the Month. a monthly newsletter of his essays and columns, still on line at Sobran.com.