Entries from May 2008

In Mcclellan, Bush Reaps What He’s Sown

David Frum May 31st, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Except maybe for MSNBC’s wild-eyed commentator Keith Olbermann, nobody in politics or media seems to have a good word to say for Scott McClellan, the former George W. Bush press secretary turned ferocious Bush critic.

The right complains of his disloyalty. The left complains that McClellan’s change of heart arrived too late. The old Washington hands shake their heads at a press secretary writing a book at all: FDR’s and Eisenhower’s men took their secrets to their graves — why can’t today’s whippersnappers do the same?

Yet there is something very sad and sympathetic about McClellan and the bitter, accusatory memoir that leaked out this week. (The book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, has hit number one on Amazon. com’s sales chart despite the fact that it won’t be officially released till next week.)

If you ever watched McClellan’s televised confrontations with the savage White House press corps, you probably thought:This is terrible!The man has no business being up there. He looks frightened, like a schoolboy trying to retrieve his mittens from a persecuting gang of bullies. His words stumble and clomber. When he has good news to announce, he cannot elicit any interest; when the news is bad, his clumsy efforts to evade questions only draw more attention than ever.

As the current press secretary Dana Perino daily reminds us, you don’t have to be a genius to succeed as press secretary. But you do need (1) composure under fire, (2) verbal fluency, (3) an understanding of the imperatives of the news business and (4) access to the interior workings of the administration. McClellan never possessed qualities (1) and (2), and his colleagues refused to grant him (4).

In these deficiencies, McClellan was not alone. George W. Bush brought most of his White House team with him from Texas. Except for Karl Rove, these Texans were a strikingly inadequate bunch. Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzalez, Karen Hughes, Al Hawkins, Andy Card (the last not a Texan, but a lifelong Bush family retainer) — they were more like characters from The Office than the sort of people one would expect to find at the supreme height of government in the world’s most powerful nation. McClellan, too, started in Bush’s governor’s office, and if he never belonged to the innermost circle of power, he nonetheless gained closer proximity than would be available to almost anyone who did not first serve in Texas.

That early team was recruited with one paramount consideration in mind: loyalty. Theoretically, it should be possible to combine loyalty with talent. But that did not happen often with the Bush team.

Bush demanded a very personal kind of loyalty, a loyalty not to a cause or an idea, but to him and his own career. Perhaps unconsciously, he tested that loyalty with constant petty teasing, sometimes verging on the demeaning. (Robert Draper, whose book Dead Certain offers a vivid picture of the pre-presidential Bush, tells the story of a 1999 campaign-strategy meeting during which Bush shut Karl Rove up by ordering him to “hang up my jacket.” The room fell silent in shock–but Rove did it.)

These little abuses would often be followed by unexpected acts of thoughtfulness and generosity. Yet the effect of the combination of the demand for personal loyalty, the bullying and the ensuing compensatory love-bombing was to weed out strong personalities and to build an inner circle defined by a willingness to accept absolute subordination to the fluctuating needs of a tense, irascible and unpredictable chief.

Had Bush been a more active manager, these subordinated personalities might have done him less harm. But after choosing people he could dominate, he then delegated them enormous power. He created a closed loop in which the people entrusted with the most responsibility were precisely those who most dreaded responsibility — Condoleezza Rice being the most important and most damaging example.

Yet as the proverb warns us, even worms will turn.

For three years, Bush left Scott McClellan in a position for which he was unsuited and in which he must have suffered terrible anxiety and stress. Finally, McClellan was deputed to act as the administration’s shield and buffer in the Valerie Plame leak case. The administration had nothing to fear from the truth, but McClellan was assigned to say things that later proved untrue. Understandably, he feels terrible bitterness about the episode — and predictably, a book publisher offered him the opportunity to exact his revenge.

The lesson from this story is emphatically not that presidents should seek staffers even more fanatically loyal than Bush’s. The lesson is that weak personalities break under pressure. And since a White House is the world’s highest-pressure environment, a wise president will seek to staff it with strong personalities.

To recruit and hold strong personalities, a president must demand something more than personal loyalty. He must offer a compelling vision and ideal — a cause that people can serve without feeling servile. Otherwise a president will only get what Bush has now got.

Don’t Call It ‘inflation’

David Frum May 24th, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The late 1960s were a tough time to be a kid. There was a time that you could buy a bag of potato chips for a nickel. Then the bag cost a dime. Then 15¢.

It took a lot of growing up to understand what was really happening: It wasn’t the cost of potato chips that was going up. It was the value of money that was going down.

We learned that this general decline in the value of money was called “inflation.” We accepted as necessary the painful struggle to subdue inflation in the 1980s. We became hyper vigilant to any sign of inflation’s return.

Now, prices are rising again: oil, food, metals and other commodities. Central bankers — the defenders of the purchasing power of money — are nervously checking and rechecking their arsenal of anti-inflation weapons. Should they raise interest rates? How much and how soon?

Those of us who came of age in the 1970s instinctively lean toward crushing inflation early. U. S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (born 1953) has been issuing inflation warnings for two years. But there is always a risk of over learning the lessons of the past. Just as the Depression generation’s excessive anxieties led them to ignore the gathering inflation of the 1970s, so maybe our Great Inflation generation may be looking the wrong way today.

Here’s a radical thought: Yes, of course we are experiencing and (most of us) suffering the effects of a surge in the prices of basic commodities. Certain important modern services — especially health-care — are also climbing in cost at a fearsome pace.

But is that necessarily the same thing as “inflation”?

Inflation is a sustained rise in the general price level. A few spectacular price increases do not a general price increase make. Rather, what we may be seeing here is not a price rise, but a price tilt.

Through the 1990s, the prices of many goods and almost all commodities steadily declined. Consumer electronics, food, oil — all cost dramatically less at the end of the decade than they did at the beginning.

This price decline yielded an increase in consumer welfare. In 1990, only slightly more than half of U. S. households subscribed to cable television. Ten years later, two-thirds did. In 1990, 5 million Americans owned a cell phone. By 2000, almost 110 million did. One in seven households owned a computer in 1990; by 2000, nearly half owned at least one. Americans ate more prepared foods, bought more clothes and took better vacations.

They did all these things even though wages did not rise dramatically over the period. Rather, because prices dropped, any given wage was able to purchase a higher standard of living.

Could it be that this benign period — benign for Americans and other Westerners anyway — is now going into reverse?

China’s new wealth is expressing itself in a rising Chinese currency — and higher prices for Chinese manufactured goods.

Richer Chinese and Indians are able to pay more for commodities. That puts more money in the pockets of Russian oil exporters, Nebraska corn growers and Chilean copper producers. Or rather, it transfers money to those people from North American and European workers and consumers.

If that theory is correct, what we are seeing now is not an inflation, but a massive global wealth transfer –and a transfer that’s unfavourable to the workers and consumers of the Western world.

This transfer must eventually end. We’ll develop substitutes for oil sooner or later, and today’s corn boom will call forth a huge new supply from Africa, and other regions of underdeveloped agricultural potential.

But “sooner or later” can last a decade or longer. In the meantime, misinterpreting a rise in certain prices as a rise in prices overall can lead to very dangerous mistakes. The medicine for inflation is higher interest rates. Applying higher rates to a U. S. economy already heading toward inflation will be painful. And if indeed today’s price rises are not a real inflation, then this pain is pointless, counterproductive, and dangerous.

Just as the policy-makers of the late 1960s tipped the world into an avoidable general inflation in order to avert a greatly exaggerated risk of recession, could today’s policy-makers tip the world — or, anyway, the United States — into an unnecessarily harsh recession in order to avert another imaginary fear?

I don’t know the answer. But I sure hope that today’s central bankers are worrying about the question.

Democracy To Democracy

David Frum May 17th, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Seven bombs exploded in the Indian city of Jaipur on the evening of May 13. An eighth was placed outside a Hindu temple just outside the city. At least 63 people were killed, more than 200 wounded. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but Indian media and police take for granted that the atrocity was the work of Islamic extremists.

More than 60 people dead in a single evening. That’s serious, or so you would think. The July 7, 2005, subway bombings in London killed 52 commuters and commanded the attention of the world. Yet Jaipur? Not so much.

Not so much either for the six bombings that targeted law courts in the northern state of Uttar Prades in November, 2007, killing 13. Or for the attack on the southern Indian city of Hyderabad in August, 2007, in which two bombs killed 43 — and 19 unexploded bombs were later found and disarmed by police.

It’s not only media attention that has been lacking in the West. U. S. President George W. Bush has spoken personally about the London attacks (and also about such red-letter attacks on India as the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2006 Bombay train bombings that killed some 209 people and wounded over 700). The job of condemning these latest Indian attacks has been left to the State Department’s official spokespeople. That’s diplomatically correct, but it lacks emotional oomph.

America keeps quiet in part because the present Indian government prefers it that way. India is home to a large Muslim minority, at least the third largest Muslim population on Earth and very possibly the second. Indian authorities fear anything that might provoke intergroup antagonism. Their first instinct is to soothe and palliate:Hindu-majority India was the first country on earth to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

This instinct is felt especially strongly when (as now) India’s Congress Party holds office in India. The Congress Party depends heavily on Muslim votes. Its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), draws its support from Indians with a strong Hindu identity. Congress fears that too forceful a response to terrorism might alienate potential Muslim supporters — and galvanize BJP voters.

So Congress usually prefers a softly, softly approach. This week’s U. S. diplomatic response defers to that preference.

So far, so reasonable. But at some point, the United States (and the Western world more generally) needs to integrate into its diplomacy a recognition that India is a democracy. The developing U. S.-India relationship is not only a government-to-government relationship: It is a people-to-people relationship. And effective management of a people-to-people relationship requires attention and sensitivity to natural human feeling.

Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee attended in person the memorial service on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. No senior American official has done the equivalent in India during the past decade of terrorist attacks on Indian soil. The mourning stops at the assistant secretary level. That may be protocol — but the construction of a true alliance calls for stepping beyond protocol.

The U. S.-India relationship may grow into the most important bilateral strategic alliance on Earth in the 21st century. Yet the growth of this relationship repeatedly stumbles against misperceptions and misinterpretations. Indian sensibilities are easily offended, as President Bush discovered last week when a stray remark about Indian grain purchases triggered outrage in New Delhi. It would help to nurture this emerging relationship if the United States would bank some emotional credit when it was appropriate to do so.

When India bleeds, the U. S. president should join the mourning, even if it is not immediately convenient to the party that happens to hold power in New Delhi at the time.

A generous word can sometimes do more good than whole volumes of diplomatic etiquette. The U. S. and India are both media democracies. When leaders speak, they do not speak only to each other. They speak to whole nations. And when they fail to speak when speech is called for — that too is heard loud and clear.

True friends share more than interests. They exchange more than investments. They feel each other’s griefs and mourn each other’s losses. The Indians themselves showed the way in 2001. The U. S. should emulate their example — starting with Jaipur and continuing through the main losses that sadly may lie ahead for both nations and all the democracies.

Subsidizing Ethanol Was A Mistake

David Frum May 9th, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It was a routine drop-by for President Bush.

Speaking last weekend at a high-tech firm near St. Louis, Missouri, the president attempted to defend himself against the charge that his policies were responsible for rising food prices.

Bush has strongly favoured subsidies to ethanol: motor fuel made from corn. One-third of the U.S. corn crop is now used for fuel.

The President acknowledged that his ethanol policies may have contributed to the price rise. But he argued three other factors contributed far more: (1) the rising cost of the energy used to produce the food; (2) bad weather in other food-exporting nations and (3) rising demand from India and China.

“There turns out to be prosperity in [the] developing world, which is good. ItÕs going to be good for you because youÕll be selling products into countries – big countries perhaps – and itÕs hard to sell products into countries that arenÕt prosperous. In other words, the more prosperous the world is, the more opportunity there is.

“It also, however, increases demand. So, for example, just as an interesting thought for you, there are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class. ThatÕs bigger than America. Their middle class is larger than our entire population. And when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.”

These words from the president triggered a political and media uproar in India. Indian newspapers have savaged Bush. Opposition politicians accused the president of racism. A spokesman for the ruling Congress party dismissed his words as “completely erroneous.” Even the Indian defense minister (who spends most of his working days cultivating ever more intimate military co-operation with the United States) called the presidentÕs words “a cruel joke.”

Of course, BushÕs observation was completely accurate.

As recently as 1995, meat consumption in China still averaged only 25 kilograms per person per year. Today, the average Chinese eats 53 kilograms – more than double the 1995 figure – and is rapidly approaching the average U.S. consumption level of 120 kilograms.

India, with its vegetarian moral traditions, eats less meat. But consumption of poultry and eggs has been surging at 8-10% per annum, according to the UNÕs Food and Agriculture Organization.

Chinese meat and Indian chickens are fattened on feeds mostly derived from corn. It takes about four pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat. Multiplied by hundreds of millions of mouths, that ratio exerts astonishing weight on global food markets: The improvement in ChinaÕs diet alone requires an extra 8 billion bushels of grain per year, or more than three times as much as the U.S. ethanol industry.

These trends are mostly good news. The improvement in diet in India and China is of course a fine thing for those enjoying it. The consequent rise in grain prices brings benefits to North American farmers and food exporters.

For the worldÕs poor, however, all these extra demands on corn add up to intensifying deprivation. Global food prices have risen by 75% since 2000. For the people of the developed world, this increase is only a very moderate nuisance. We spend only about one-sixth of our incomes on food, and most of that spending goes to pay distribution and preparation costs. A few extra cents on a bulk package of rice or a box of cornmeal – even a 30% increase in the price of a carton of eggs – do not mean very much.

But for people living on a couple of dollars a day, the shock of these price increases is sharp and painful.

Demand will eventually call forth new supply (AfricaÕs agricultural potential remains dismayingly underdeveloped), but not immediately. Under these circumstances, ethanol – till now a costly irrationality – begins to look more and more like a moral wrong.

The United States turned to ethanol in the first place to avoid the hard facts of supply and demand. Had America imposed higher gasoline taxes in the 1990s, when gas was cheap, it would have induced consumers to conserve and manufacturers to innovate. That would have been politically dangerous. Massively subsidizing ethanol hid the cost of substituting away from oil. But because prices to consumers were unaltered, no changes of behavior occurred. Gasoline seemed cheap, consumers bought bigger cars, manufacturers postponed innovation. Americans burned more corn, yes, but also more oil.

We have seen since 2006 that the only price that matters is the price at the pump. Sales of small cars and hybrids are surging, sales of SUVs are collapsing. Fuel consumption in 2007 grew at the lowest rate since 1991 – and consumption may well decline absolutely in 2008.

Ethanol was the wrong tool. No surprise that it achieved the wrong result.

Republicans Must Change To Win

David Frum May 7th, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

These have been a terrible few weeks for the Democrats – so bad that Republicans are feeling faint flickers of hope.

Damaging revelations about Barack Obama – and his own and his wife Michelle’s ill-chosen words – have opened the way for John McCain to rerun the Republican presidential campaign of 1988. That year, George H.W. Bush mauled Michael Dukakis, his Democratic rival, as a hopelessly feckless liberal. Mr. Bush seized on three symbolic facts about Mr. Dukakis: he had vetoed a law requiring the pledge of allegiance in school. He described himself as a “card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union”. And he furloughed Willie Horton, the rapist-murderer. Lee Atwater, Mr. Bush’s campaign manager, is supposed to have chortled: “By the time we are finished, they are gonna wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Can the controversial comments from the pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Mrs. Obama’s statement that she had never before felt pride in her country and Mr. Obama’s description of white working-class voters as “bitter” achieve the same effect in 2008? In spite ofconcerns from Democrats, who fear victory is slipping away amid the rancorous contest, the best guess? Probably not.

The anti-incumbent mood is stronger in 2008 than in 1988. Ronald Reagan’s approval rating was almost 60 per cent in 1988 against George W. Bush’s 30 per cent rating today. Mr. McCain’s campaign is much less focused and determined than the elder Bush’s.

Yet there are deeper reasons we will not see a replay of 1988. Atwater’s attacks on Mr. Dukakis were not plucked at random, but carefully chosen to resonate with Democratic weaknesses and Republican strengths: patriotism, religion and public safety.

Today, however, Republican conservatism is tired and confused. Once the party of limited government, now it is the one that enacted the largest new social programme since the 1960s: the prescription drug benefit. Once the party of law and order, it now offers amnesty in all but name to illegal immigrants. Once the party that ran against Washington’s special interests, it is now run by lobbyists. Once the party of sound management, it is now tarred by the managerial disasters of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.

Those Republicans who imagine that the party can regain its strength by returning to the core conservative doctrines of the 1980s are making a serious mistake. They are like tourists who believe uncomprehending locals will understand them if only they repeat their message louder and slower.

The country has changed since 1988. Polls capture a shift to the left on economic issues. The once decisive tax issue has faded altogether, and no wonder: 80 per cent of Americans now pay more in payroll taxes than in federal income taxes. Americans care less about taxes than healthcare and fuel prices, issues where Republicans offer few solutions and speak with something less than passionate urgency. Americans are expressing a new pessimism about upward mobility and their children’s chances of leading a better life – an understandable reaction to the stagnation of median wages since 2000. Even on the signature issue of the war on terror, Americans are turning away from Republican ideas. The proportion of Americans who believe that terrorism can be defeated by military force has sharply declined since 2002.

So, 2008 is not 1988. The problems are different and so must the solutions be. The Reagan themes do not carry the power they once did. The conservative voting majority is not a majority any more. To compete and win this year Republicans have to adapt and change, not revert and revive.

Mr. McCain could be the perfect candidate for this new mission. He is less bound by old orthodoxies than almost any other national Republican. He fought Mr. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the former defence secretary, on Iraq strategy, and has been proved right while they have been proved wrong.

Unfortunately, Mr. McCain has been a maverick on issues that matter least to voters: campaign finance reform, tobacco, climate change. On the ones that matter most to voters – healthcare, economic management, immigration – he has positioned himself with party orthodoxy and against the voters.

This is Mr. McCain’s error, but it is not his error alone. If he is a bad candidate, at least some of the blame attaches to a party that will not allow him to be a better one. Our Republican crisis is a crisis of followership at least as much as a crisis of leadership.

Successful institutions are always reluctant to change and the Republican party of Richard Nixon, Reagan and Newt Gingrich has been a very successful institution. Many conservative leaders have quietly accepted the likelihood of defeat in 2008. They point out that past defeats have led to greater triumphs: 1992 to 1994, 1976 to 1980.

But what was true for conservatism on the way up will not necessarily be true on the way down. If the Democrats win the presidency in 2008 (as most polls suggest) and gain seats in both houses of Congress (as most experts predict), they will have scored their most decisive victory since 1964. In 1992 the Democrats won the presidency but lost seats in Congress; in 1976 they won the presidency but gained only one seat in the House and none in the Senate.

A Democratic victory on this scale would be a 1980 in reverse. The Democratic defeat in 1980 was not exactly a harbinger of liberal triumphs to come. This is going to be a tough election for Republicans. But it is not too late to avert the worst – and not too early to begin rebuilding for a comeback.

America’s Ally In The Middle East

David Frum May 3rd, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Why does the United States support Israel so strongly?

Israel’s enemies think they know the answer: It is a conspiracy, the work of a sinister “lobby.”

But there’s a simpler and more powerful explanation: The American people favour the Jewish state over its enemies — and that support has only intensified with the passage of time.

Israel declared its independence in May, 1948. It was immediately attacked — and Americans were immediately polled on the ensuing war by the National Opinion Re-search Center. Thirty-four per cent of Americans said they sympathized more with the Jews of Palestine; 12% said they sympathized more with the Arabs. (Eytan Gilboa’s American Public Opinion Toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict is the source of most of the numbers I’ll cite here.)

This 3:1 ratio looks impressive. But still: More than half of all Americans took no view at all. In later NORC surveys, barely one-third of Americans rated the relationship with Israel as “very important.”

The polls continue to show coolness to Israel through the 1950s — with more Americans blaming Israel than Egypt for the 1956 war. The great turning point comes in 1967, after the Six Day War.

June, 1967 polls showed sympathy for Israel surging above the 50% mark for the first time — and sympathy for the Arabs plunging below the 5% mark. An epoch had been turned. Over the next four decades, feelings about the Arab-Israeli dispute would settle and harden, with sympathy for Israel averaging a little above 45% and sympathy for Israel’s Arab enemies averaging slightly more than 10%.

Those overall averages concealed fascinating variations. White Americans supported Israel more strongly than African Americans. Educated Americans were more pro-Israel than less educated Americans. And especially since 1982, right-of-centre Americans have tended to become more and more pro-Israel, while left-of-centre Americans have tended to become less so.

Yet underneath all these variations, here’s the hard fact. The American public as a whole strongly supports the state of Israel, and this support has only intensified over time.

The so-called Israel lobby succeeds in Washington for exactly the same reason that Mothers Against Drunk Driving has succeeded in its lobbying: because it has public opinion on their side.

The next question is: Why? And to that question, the polling data suggest an answer.

The highest points in Israel’s popularity (52% and better) include June, 1967, December, 1973, July-August, 1982, January, 1991, February, 2002 and almost all of the period since 2006.

Conversely, the lowest points in Arab unpopularity (8% and less) include the whole of the period from 1967 through 1973, and most of the period since September, 2001.

The American public does not like terrorism. It did not like the wave of hijackings and murders launched by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1969, and it does not like the wave of suicide bombings that followed Yasser Arafat’s “second intifada” in October, 2000.

The American public does not like unprovoked aggression. It did not like the Egyptian-Syrian sneak attack of October, 1973, it did not like Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks on Israel during the Gulf War, and it does not like the rocket attacks on Sderot today.

The American public respects competence and professionalism. Israel’s triumph in June, 1967, its come-from-behind victory in 1973, its shooting down of 86 Syrian planes without the loss of one of its own at the opening of the Lebanon war –all these won favorable responses.

Finally: The terror attacks of 9/11 have convinced many Americans that Israel and the United States stand together. Images of Palestinians dancing on 9/11, the rise of Hamas and Iran’s repeated threats of genocide have shaped a new awareness that Israel’s enemies are also America’s, and America’s are also Israel’s.

It’s often said that perception is reality. It’s even more true, however, that reality is perception. Israel’s Arab enemies are unpopular because Americans see them for what they are. And Israel is liked because Americans see it for what it is.

Which implies this lesson for those who seek to counteract the power of the “Israel lobby.” If Israel’s enemies would only disavow genocide, eschew religious extremism, halt terrorism, adopt democracy, practise tolerance, and offer and accept reasonable compromise — then Americans would like them a lot a lot better.

Of course, in that case, it would not matter whether Americans liked them or not — for if Israel’s enemies ever did those things, the conflict would be over.

The Loyal Son

David Frum May 1st, 2008 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Like thousands before and after me, I first met William F. Buckley because of Yale.

A group of us from the Yale Political Union had invited the conservative magazine editor R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. to come talk to us. Tyrrell generously accepted — and asked if he could bring his friend Bill Buckley along with him. We students were thrilled, of course, and on the appointed date Tyrrell and Buckley rocketed up from Sharon together. “Rocket” is really the word. Driving was one unique activity where Bill made up in speed for what he lacked in exactness and subtlety. Tyrrell stepped out of the car looking a little wobbly.

For dinner, we students had booked a restaurant on Chapel Street called the Old Heidelberg (long-ago, and deservedly, extinct). Buckley, presciently distrustful of undergraduate taste, had taken the precaution of bringing with him — not his dinner, he would take his chances on that — but his wine: six bottles of 1967 Haut-Brion.

It may seem strange that I can still recall the exact vintage all these years later. I suppose that’s because I was so amazed by what happened next: Buckley tipped the waitress at the Old Heidelberg to open the wine — and then poured out this amazing juice to a table of young men whose usual beverage was Dr. Pepper.

Even more amazing was what Buckley did after that: he put searching questions to the students at the table and listened patiently to what each of us had to say. Under his interrogation — and illuminated by his wine — we all were made to feel as if our self-conscious ramblings amounted to something like . . . intelligent conversation.

That was a quarter century ago. I would go on to enjoy many more conversations with Buckley. Yet none has ever lingered in my memory like that first one.

I suppose the memory owed as much to where we were speaking as to what was said. William F. Buckley Jr. began his career as Yale’s most famous dissident, the author of a coruscating attack on the school for the collectivism of its economists and the lack of Christian mission in its administrators. Three decades on, Buckley had become as much a symbol of Yale as Dink Stover.

In his style of dress, his mannerisms and jokes, Buckley preserved a vanished era of Yale’s past. At least, I think he preserved it — but then again, since I never met anyone who behaved quite the way he did, it’s also possible that the whole persona was his personal invention, as exotic to his classmates in 1950 as it was to me.

Buckley had rebelled against Yale. And yet Yale formed him and defined him. I have never met any other adult who cared about the editorial line of the Yale Daily News. Or who would so cheerfully address the Yale Political Union. Or who accepted a Yale BA as of-right permission to cease addressing him as “Mr. Buckley” and graduate to the cherished “Bill.”

In return, he formed and redefined Yale. Before 1950, it would never have occurred to anyone to regard Yale — or any of the other great Ivy League universities — as anything other than “conservative” institutions, in every possible meaning of the word “conservative.” The presidents of Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and so on ranked among the great pillars of the land; the university chaplains epitomized American religious orthodoxy; the student body was overwhelmingly drawn from the secure and the propertied. If this was not “conservatism,” what on earth could the word mean?

It was William F. Buckley who first argued that the word “conservative” could and should mean something very different from the accepted use — that there could and did exist some important sense in which institutions like Yale had ceased to conserve the nation and the civilization that had created them. Yale and places like it had long become accustomed to criticism that they clung too firmly to the past. Here for the first time was an intellectual voice chastising them for not clinging to the past nearly firmly enough!

In this, Bill Buckley started a tradition. He would be followed in due course by many others. As so often happens, each would-be successor fell progressively further and further short of the original innovator. For what these later and angrier and louder voices never understood about Bill Buckley and his God and Man at Yale was that his critique was a critique written in love.

If Buckley’s followers often misunderstood him, so too did his many and ferocious critics. With its attack on Keynesian economics and its championing of Yale’s Christian mission, God and Man at Yale is today remembered as an unbendingly reactionary book. And yet in one important way, at least, Buckley’s notorious book should be seen not as the last gasp of a bygone Yale but as the first harbinger of the new Yale.

Look again at Buckley’s call for Yale to return to its “Christian” mission. Yale’s Christian mission had historically been of course a fiercely Protestant one. This Protestant mission and Protestant identity infused much of Yale’s angry first response to the young Buckley.

Buckley’s accusations of irreligion so offended the Yale authorities that they convened a special panel to investigate, under the chairmanship of Henry Sloane Coffin. If any single man personified the American WASP ascendancy, Henry Sloane Coffin, Yale College Class of 1897, was he: heir to a furniture-making fortune, a Bonesman, pastor of the Madison Avenue Church in New York City, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), president of the Union Theological Seminary, brother of the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Et cetera.

And what was Henry Sloane Coffin’s response to God and Man at Yale? In his memoir, Miles Gone By, Buckley quoted from a letter that Coffin had (as Buckley said) “incautiously” written to a concerned alumnus. In the letter, Coffin said that Buckley “should have attended Fordham or some similar institution.” Some similar Catholic institution. In other words: if you don’t like how we do things, Mr. Buckley, perhaps you should have stayed among your own kind.

With God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley was audaciously claiming that a Catholic could speak to Yale with all the rights of an insider — rather than with the grateful deference appropriate to an outsider. In time, similar claims would be made by Jewish students, by African American students, by women, by gays, and by the children of the great post-1970 immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Many (not all) of their particular claims would have appalled the author of God and Man at Yale. And yet those claims were also anticipated and to some degree made possible by him. A strange outcome — but then again, maybe not so strange. At once reactionary and rebel, conservative and iconoclast, religiously orthodox but culturally heterodox, a man of the 1950s in his politics but a man of the 1960s in his literary sensibility, Buckley was a man of many dimensions.

We are all better and greater for his life and work. And if he never stopped caring for Yale, it is fitting that Yale decided, before it was too late, to laud him by conferring an honorary degree in 2000, the 50th anniversary of the graduation of this great and good man, this loving and loyal friend, this devoted and difficult alumnus.