William F. Buckley (Nick Machalaba/Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Getty Images)

Things Worth Remembering: William F. Buckley on ‘Pushing Old Ladies Around’

In 1988, the conservative speaker used humor to contrast America and the Soviet Union—making a point that wasn’t just funny but true.

Welcome to Douglas Murray’s column, Things Worth Remembering, in which he presents great speeches from famous orators we should commit to heart. To listen to William F. Buckley make the case for America’s moral superiority in the struggle against Soviet totalitarianism, scroll to the end of this piece.

Among the public speakers I regard as veritable magicians, few have ever been as great as the magician William F. Buckley. The founder of the modern American conservative movement, Buckley was a man of multiple talents. Maybe too many. 

He was a superb public speaker, columnist, and magazine editor. He founded National Review. He ran for elected office (unsuccessfully). He hosted the unsurpassable show Firing Line, which aired on PBS and other networks for more than three decades. 

His whole life’s work is a reminder that one can—and should—engage with the American public in a serious and elevated way.

He never wrote the big book that he could have written, but he wrote plenty, and on his death in 2008, left an enormous legacy.

One of the blessings about Buckley’s generation was that, as well as their written works being accessible, their spoken works are still as accessible as they were in their day. 

I mentioned Buckley earlier in this series, when I wrote about the great debate he took part in at the Cambridge Union, in 1965, with the novelist James Baldwin. The motion that night was: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” (Baldwin argued yea; Buckley, nay.) On that occasion, Buckley lost. He performed magnificently, using every conjurer’s trick in the book and making a brilliant if slightly legalistic argument. But Baldwin, who spoke before Buckley, reached rhetorical and emotional heights that were impossible to beat.

Yet the things that made Buckley so watchable and easy to listen to were all on display that night. The extraordinarily expressive voice, the idiosyncratic—even hypnotic—hand movements. And, of course, that magnificent eye-flare. 

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