REMEMBERING WM. F. BUCKLEY
The day after William F. Buckley, an icon of American conservatism, died at age 82, Marvin Levich, Woodstock resident and Reed College professor emeritus of philosophy and former provost, was walking on the Reed campus where he still co-teaches a class two days a week.
While walking, Levich was approached by a campus groundskeeper, who mentioned Buckley's recent passing on February 27th. 'By the way,' the Reed employee said, 'I heard by the grapevine how you creamed Buckley all those many years ago in the debate that took place at Cleveland High School.'
Indeed, the December 4, 1964, debate between Buckley and Levich is legendary at Reed. Buckley and Levich were, as a December 5, 1964 Oregonian article described, 'well matched in their intellectual acumen and probing delivery.' Levich argued that internal security legislation undermined the nature of a free society, while Buckley defended such legislation as necessary to protect freedoms.
Protecting freedoms had been a hot issue for over a decade then, as the U.S. government, egged on by Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade in the 1950's, pursued and persecuted people who were thought to be 'Communists'. In fact, Levich had been hired in 1955 to replace Reed philosophy professor Stanley Moore, who had been fired by the college in 1954 because of allegations that Moore had ties to the Communist Party.
Buckley, as host of the Public Television show 'Firing Line' in the 1970's and '80s, and as editor, syndicated columnist, and author of fifty books, was a profoundly influential conservative intellectual, with a high profile in American political culture.
As Levich recalls, 'Buckley was famous for going from city to city, debating and lopping off the heads of his opponents.' Asked why he, Levich, was chosen to debate such a formidable public person, Levich says simply, 'They thought I would be a fitting match for Buckley. I was the local opposition.' What Levich doesn't say is that he was known on campus for his ability to articulate arguments and sharply defend his views.
During that debate, before an overflow crowd of 1600 people packed into the Cleveland High School auditorium (Reed College had no facility big enough for the high profile debate), each man deftly defended his position and sparred while answering questions. However, according to various oral history reports, Levich stung and rattled Buckley on one point, which led to the Reed legend that Levich 'won' the debate.
As Levich puts it, ' Buckley didn't prevail on this occasion.' Levich attacked Buckley's credentials as a conservative, relentlessly pointing out inconsistencies between Buckley's argument and the conservative principles he espoused.
To clarify the point, Levich claims that Buckley defined a genuine conservative as one who acts not from the needs of the moment, but from principle. A genuine conservative knows that whatever powers you give to the government will be misused by the government.
'He returned over and over to my point that he was not arguing as a genuine conservative,' says Levich, 'but he was not able to effectively defend himself.'
Levich left a definite impression on Buckley.
'A while after the debate, I wrote Buckley a letter,' recalls Levich. ' I said, 'You may not remember me', and he wrote back 'Oh, I DO remember you'.'
In true Buckley fashion, Levich was extended an invitation to visit any time he might be in New York. Levich never took Buckley up on his offer, but many at Reed still talk about that fiery debate, forty-four years ago, that stirred political passions, and which continues to smolder in local oral history.