“All his life,” Felzenberg writes, “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism,” never resolving the tension between them. If only he had.
He, to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography “Witness” became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.
Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.” Buckley, a Bach aficionado from Yale and ocean mariner from the New York Yacht Club, was unembarrassed about having good taste and without guilt about savoring the good life.