The First Priority

Published: October 3, 2016

By Jim Lichtman
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“I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.”  — William F. Buckley, Jr.

In Junior High, my mother announced that every day I would start reading at least two articles from our daily newspaper. The first was a news event of the day. Typically, I’d pick anything to do with the space program. The second was one she picked: Art Buchwald, the popular syndicated columnist who satirized politics and the D.C. lifestyle with a generous dollop of cynicism. When dinnertime came, I would be called on to discuss what I read, and, more importantly, what I thought about it.

One day, my mother introduced me to William F. Buckley, Jr.

Besides being the most widely read conservative columnist of the day and founder of The National Review, Buckley loved to throw big, exotic words out like fastballs. A reprinted Buckley story from The Paris Review captures the essence.

“I remember once in a debate with Gore Vidal at which David Susskind was deriding me in San Francisco, 1964, I used the word ‘irenic,’ which didn’t disturb Vidal, of course. So after it was over, Susskind said, ‘What’s irenic?’

“I said, ‘Well, you know, sort of serene, sort of peaceful.’

“ ‘Well, why didn’t you say serene or peaceful?’

“And I said, ‘Because no other word is a better fit.’

“At this point, believe it or not, Vidal, who was on Susskind’s side a hundred percent during the exchange, said, ‘You know the trouble with you, David, is that you don’t learn anything, ever. . . .’ ”

Every time I’d ask my mother about a word in a Buckley column (what the heck is “eristic”?), she would respond, “Look it up!”

No matter how many times I’d look up a word — and remember, this is back in the day when you had to get out the big unabridged dictionary and search, maybe three, four, or five minutes — by the time I found the word and returned to the article, I’d quickly come to another Buckley fastball.

I was lost.

Watching the first debate, I thought, how would Clinton and Trump respond if Buckley were questioning them?

Clinton might stumble over some of the rhetoric.

Trump would be lost.

He’d probably contort his face and say something like, “Talk good English, Bill!”

When Fox host Megyn Kelly asked Trump what his favorite book is besides The Art of the Deal, Trump said, All Quiet on the Western Front.

“…Kelly, perhaps sensing that Trump may not have read a book since sixth grade, asked him to name the last book he read.

“ ‘I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time,’ Trump said.”

In Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan’s latest commentary (Oct. 1), the former speech writer for Ronald Reagan makes a telling observation:

“This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism. They have received most of what they know about political history through screens. They are college graduates, they’re in their 20s or 30s, they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is superficial. They grew up in the internet age and have filled their brainspace with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain.

“Reading,” Noonan stresses, “forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect. It provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events.”

While Noonan doesn’t mention Trump by name, clearly she is talking about the Republican contender.

When you read this sentence, from the same Noonan column, who do you think of, first?:

“The need to say something becomes the tendency to say anything. It makes everything dumber, grosser, less important.”

Trump is clearly the subtext here. Noonan’s addressing the one individual running for the highest office in the land who sits up at two-thirty in the morning and tweets:

“Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?”

Or this tweet:

“Anytime you see a story about me or my campaign saying, ‘sources said,’ DO NOT believe it. There are no sources, they are just made up lies,” (Sept. 30).

In response to Trump’s “sources said” tweet, this response came from Gavin Invester:

“I see what you mean… Unnamed sources are a tip-off to made-up lies.”

Invester then places a link to an August 6, 2012 Trump tweet:

“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @Barrack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”

So, what would Buckley say about Trump?

Speaking about demagoguery in the March/April, 2000 issue of Cigar Aficionado, the conservative master and master rhetoritician was singularly prescient:

“What about the aspirant who has a private vision to offer to the public and has the means, personal or contrived, to finance a campaign? In some cases, the vision isn’t merely a program to be adopted. It is a program that includes the visionary’s serving as President.

“Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today’s lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents — midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War — had little to do with a bottom line.

“So what else can Trump offer us? Well to begin with, a self-financed campaign. Does it follow that all who finance their own campaigns are narcissists? At this writing Steve Forbes has spent $63 million in pursuit of the Republican nomination. Forbes is an evangelist, not an exhibitionist. In his long and sober private career, Steve Forbes never bought a casino, and if he had done so, he would not have called it Forbes’s Funhouse. His motivations are discernibly selfless. . . .

“In the final analysis” Buckley cautions, “… resistance to a corrupting demagogy should take first priority.”


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