My evening (or was it afternoon?) with William F. Buckley

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I met the great man only once, and it was an odd experience. Michael Kinsley roped me into appearing in a "Firing Line Debate", which he, Kinsley, was chairing; presumably I was being asked because somebody else had dropped out. I was to speak on Buckley's team in favor of the proposition that the budget deficit was a bad thing, or words to that effect. This was back in 1992. In those days a lot of conservatives thought that big deficits were wrong, whereas most liberals thought they mattered not at all and that concern about them was just a ruse for cutting public spending and grinding the faces of the poor.

I had never watched "Firing Line" and I knew Buckley only by his writings and reputation; an innocent foreigner, I did not realise that the debate was essentially just a platform for him to perform. Mike, I recall, kept everybody else to a strict time limit--cutting me off in mid-sentence--in order to give Buckley all the time in the world to orate, with operatic pauses that seemed longer than my entire contribution. At one point, I recall, he read at some length from a sarcastic review I had written of a book by Robert Kuttner, one of our opponents, asking Kuttner exuberantly in conclusion: "What do you think accounts for such animadversion?" What a strange approach, I remember thinking. And surely not terribly effective: Kuttner was entitled to reply, "Why should that be any concern of mine? Ask Crook why he got my book so wrong."

Did we--well, Buckley, I mean--win? Was the motion even put to a vote? I can't remember. It turns out there's an archive of these programs, but this one, unaccountably, is not available for download or purchase. (The synopsis quotes me, I am surprised to see. But did I really say that?)

I came away liking Buckley very much, but resolving not to take part in any more of his debates, for or against. He seemed a charming as well as brilliant man, with a constant twinkle in his eye. National Review says he was "sweet and merry". The one time I met him, so he was.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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