William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 gave what he said will be his final speech on public affairs Wednesday night in front of the Yale Political Union.
Buckley, who is often credited with shaping the modern U.S. conservative movement, surprised the members of the audience with the announcement at the event, the 60th anniversary of his first speech at the YPU. Buckley’s address — the keynote speech at the debate entitled “Resolved: The Democratic Candidates for November 7th Should Withdraw” — was geared toward American politics, as he argued for the Democrats to withdraw from the upcoming election. Audience members said they appreciated Buckley’s witticisms, but several said they had hoped for more specific details in his speech.
Buckley began his speech by talking about the first time he spoke in front of the YPU 60 years ago, when he convinced the union to rescind an invitation for a speech given to the General Secretary of the Communist Party, William Z. Foster.
Buckley’s description of his previous campaign against the Communist leader led into his central argument that the Democratic party candidates should withdraw from the election and, more generally, from American politics.
“The Democrats are dominated by greedy, hypocritical thought,” he said in the speech.
He summarized the Democratic party’s unfulfilled promises with regard to proposed tax cuts and discussed the party’s inadequate response to the Iraq war.
“The Democratic platform of two years ago did not even go so far as to call for pulling back immediately on our missent forces from Iraq,” Buckley said. “And on the broader question of our continued reliance on militarism, the Democrats did not call for the rejection of the military. No, they actually called for a stronger military.”
Buckley — who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 — started his career in the CIA the year after he graduated from Yale. He went on to found the National Review, write several books and serve as a delegate to the United Nations in 1973.
Many at the talk said they found Buckley’s sense of humor to be his most memorable quality as a speaker, as it shone through both his speech and his responses to the questions posed by the audience afterwards.
When asked whether it was better to have a half-right, half-wrong governing political party, Buckley said jokingly that following his suggestions would prove the most effective strategy.
“[The best] is to have a policy that is always right … by accepting my suggestions,” he said.
Although most students said they liked the humor in Buckley’s speech, others said he did not actually address the matter at the heart of the debate.
Eric Purington ’09 said although Buckley was extremely eloquent and an impressive public speaker, he wanted to hear more about the actual topic in question.
“I expected a broader interpretation of everything he has stood for for the past 60 years,” Purington said. “Also, his suggestions weren’t really conceivable.”
Geoffrey Shaw ’10 said he did not feel that Buckley’s points adequately addressed the question at hand.
“It was funny that he said that the way to correct the Democrats’ platform was to listen to him, but he never really elaborated on his own ideas on how to change it,” he said.
But others said they believed Buckley did justice to his reputation of being a good speaker in his last address.
“His tongue-in-cheek humor added to the effectiveness of his speech,” Alexander Gregath ’09 said. “He is the master of the underhanded insult, and he wouldn’t be saying the things even in a humorous way if he didn’t believe them.”
Buckley hosted the “Firing Line,” the award-winning PBS television show, from 1966 until 1999.