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Bill Buckley, wordsmith

Posted by Richard on February 28, 2008

On the TECHWR-L mailing list for technical writers, Yves Jeaurond noted the passing of William F. Buckley and pointed out that Buckley's last National Review column (about a Clinton-Obama debate) drew heavily from and profusely praised Henry Fowler's  Modern English Usage, a work much revered by us tech writers. The column, Jeaurond observed, was "a fitting end piece for a fan of the English language, articulate speech and voluptuous prose."

Buckley was a big fan of Fowler:

My reluctance to quote at such length from the great Fowler is mitigated by my serious wish that students of the English language would themselves take the initiative of familiarizing themselves with the profundities and niceties of the points being made by Mr. Fowler.

I wasn't a big fan of Bill Buckley, but did admire his erudition and humor. Here are a couple of quotes I particularly like. The first demonstrates that he wasn't the snobbish elitist he sometimes appeared to be:

I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.

The second reminds me of a much longer John Stuart Mill quote ("War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things…"). Buckley's take is marvelously succinct and powerful:

World War is the second worst activity of mankind, the worst being acquiescence in slavery.

Buckley apparently passed away at his desk, writing — an entirely fitting and proper end for an outstanding wordsmith.

UPDATE: One of the most important things Buckley did for the conservative movement that he helped grow and shape was to insist that there was no room in that movement for racists, anti-Semites, and kooks like the Birchers. And that reminds me of another great Buckley quote. The John Birch Society's Robert Welch accused President Dwight David Eisenhower (among others) of being a communist. Buckley's reaction: "Eisenhower isn't a communist. He's a golfer." 

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