Aloise Buckley Heath once reminisced that, when her brother set out to establish National Review in the mid-1950s, “Our most deeply buried fear was that Gerald L.K. Smith was the only other conservative in America.” Fifty years later, William F. Buckley Jr.’s “weekly journal of opinion” (now bi-weekly) reaches more than a quarter-million readers, including the President of the United States, and is recognized as the intellectual fountainhead of modern conservatism. That magazine, whose rudder he captained for so many decades, has been deprived of his guidance. Last Tuesday, William F. Buckley Jr. relinquished ownership of National Review. We should hasten to add, Buckley (thankfully) is not retiring from public life and will continue to produce his regular column. But his beloved magazine will now be guided by hands other than his own.
The move does not come out of the blue. Buckley retired as NR’s Editor-in-Chief in 1990, assuming the title Editor-at-Large, and strictly curtailed his public speaking schedule at the turn of the millenium. However, his transfer of leadership marks a heartsick moment for conservatives, whose melancholy is heightened by the accompanying press release’s terse acknowledgement that, “Mr. Buckley, 78, cited concerns about his own mortality as the primary reason for his divestiture.” More than anyone else, William F. Buckley Jr. has come to embody conservatism itself. He made the term “conservative” respectable, realigned the Republican Party (permanently, one hopes) to the Right and set in motion a movement that saw two of its members elected President of the United States.
His prospects were not always so sunny.
He began his efforts during the high tide of Liberalism, the triumph of which was then, like the ultimate withering of Marx’s colossal State, considered inevitable. It already held all academia under its sway, as Buckley noted in his first book, God and Man at Yale. The intelligentsia believed the Great Depression – and the isolationist, nativist ravings of the Old Right – discredited every alternative; Liberalism was in full victory march. In this struggle, Buckley wrote in NR’s first editorial, his magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
Then, WFB proceeded to create an intellectually respectable conservatism de novo. After the publishing of his first book, he founded National Review (with Willie Schlamm) to present a regular rebuttal to the nation’s academic and political culture. He recruited a roster that included James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Ralph de Toledano and Frank Meyer. Buckley’s evident wit, patrician mannerisms and expansive vocabulary defied caricature. Clearly, neither the sharp-tongued young sophisticate nor his peers could be dismissed ad hominem. Assembling this group proved easier than holding together thinkers with such widely divergent views, a task Buckley accomplished by focusing all parties on the overriding objective of defeating Communism – and leavening disputes with his abundant personal charm. This tactic would be writ large as Cold War conservatism united libertarians, neo-conservatives, traditionalists and social conservatives under its big tent.
Thus united, NR’s staff opened fire on the prevailing academic and political culture. Buckley flatly stated that university professors had a duty to defend the precepts of freedom, to deny that all philosophies were equally true, or equally plausible. (Liberalism claims to honor the intellect by pursuing every wind of doctrine, Buckley wrote, but conservatism pays the mind its highest tribute: that it has come to a few conclusions.) He believed the size and scope of government must be hemmed in as a necessary prerequisite to reviving the engines of capitalism left cooling under Eisenhower’s big government conservatism. He wrote that totalitarianism could be rolled back, not merely contained. And he dared to reveal that milieu of the Eastern Liberal Establishment regularly made martyrs out of scoundrels like Alger Hiss, Owen Lattimore and Harry Dexter White. Later, when the fifth column invaded the legal establishment, Buckley would call for the disbarment of William Kunstler. In National Review, and then in his syndicated newspaper column, he punctured the shibboleths of the Left with his rapier-like insights (which, despite their polemical nature, remain some of the most eloquent prose of their time). He also penned a full-length philosophical account of the Left’s pathologies and the Right’s responses, Up from Liberalism, which remains a classic. And the tide began to turn.
Throughout his controversies, Buckley showed an even-handedness rare in anyone in the public square, responsibly parsing the actions of his fellow conservatives. The young Buckley wrote McCarthy and His Enemies to set the record straight on the validity of Joe McCarthy’s charges, but at times condemned his methods. Buckley gave only a partial and sober approval to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Never an uncritical Republican partisan, he chided Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, Ford’s refusal to meet with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Reagan’s seemingly premature rapprochement with the Soviets following the Polish coup. A devout Roman Catholic, he took on the National Council of Catholic Bishops for their moral equivalency during the Cold War. (They condemned the “arms race,” which ultimately toppled the greatest atheistic regime in history, between missives demanding “Economic Justice.”) He even criticized the pope. When Pope John XXIII published Mater et Magistra, an unbalanced encyclical overly censorious of the West (and far too easy on the Communists), Buckley replied, “Mater sí, Magistra, no!”
Having created such an intellectual counterbalance, Buckley would embark upon a half-century role as the protector of responsible conservatism. In the 1960s, he read the Radical Right out of the movement, expelling the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand cultists from its ranks. (With the 1972 publication of the conspiracy-mongering None Dare Call it Treason, Buckley ran a review entitled, “None Dare Call it Bullshit.”1) Later, as the “New Right” looked to George Wallace as a political savior, Buckley exposed Wallace’s statist views on every subject…except integration. Only ten years ago, he confronted old friends with exacting deliberation and prudence in his book In Search of Anti-Semitism.
His legacy, though, includes more than his writing. He has tirelessly organized those who wish to lead the assault on the Left. He founded Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) in his living room in 1960 to motivate conservatives on campus. Three years later, he organized the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) to provide a more balanced education than American college students were getting (or have gotten since). He was also a co-founder of the Conservative Party of New York State. And he gave more than verbal support to their cause.
In 1965, he famously entered the New York City mayoral election against liberal Republican incumbent John Lindsay.2 Running as the Conservative Party candidate, he fetched 341,226 votes (13.4 percent of the vote), a full 60,000 votes more than the Liberal Party candidate. Five years later, his brother James would win Bobby Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat on the Conservative Party line.3 Having helped elected George Pataki governor, the CSPNY is still going strong, even while its counterpart, the Liberal Party, lies in ruins.
He also took the Right somewhere it had never been before: television – specifically, public television, bringing much-needed balance to that medium. Beginning in 1966, his program “Firing Line” brought cultivated discussions of politics, philosophy and spirituality into the homes of millions of viewers. In addition to the weekly program, which he hosted for 33 years, he sponsored regular “Firing Line debates,” rescuing the dying art form of genuine debate from presidential candidates.
In these forums, as well as his television appearances, his most appealing characteristic comes to the fore: his charm and irascible wit, unchanging whether debating Liberals or living the life of a bon vivant with his (often very unconservative) friends. When he debated his friend Ronald Reagan over the Panama Canal treaty, the two Irishmen's friendship shone through. Reagan's first question was, “Why haven't you rushed across the room to tell me you've seen the light?” Buckley replied, “I'm afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you.” His friend, actor David Niven, also experienced Buckley's caustic wit. When Niven asked Buckley for a blurb for his memoirs, Buckley submitted, “Probably the best book ever written about Hollywood - William F. Buckley Jr.” Upon publishing his first Blackford Oakes spy novel, Saving the Queen, he asked Niven for a statement; Niven told Buckley to write something appropriate. When the two were skiing in Switzerland, Buckley told the actor he had sent the following quotation to his publisher: “Probably the best book ever written about f-cking the Queen - David Niven.” (Buckley later reminisced, “I think that was the only time I ever saw him really caught off balance.”)
He also turned his wit on his foes. He threw JFK hagiogarpher Arthur Schlesinger Jr. into fits. When Schlesinger debated Buckley in 1961, he sarcastically told the crowd, “Mr. Buckley has a facility for rhetoric which I envy and as well as a wit which I seek clumsily to and vainly to imitate.” Buckley used this quotation on the cover of his next book, Rumbles Left and Right, as though it were spoken in earnest (provoking threats of a lawsuit from the unamused historian). When he saw Schlesinger next, he told him, “Your deadline for my next cover blurb is the first of the month.” These characteristics were on display even in court, when he was sued by anti-Semitic clearinghouse Liberty Lobby. During the trial, he regularly shrugged off the questions of his inquisitor, far-Left lawyer Mark Lane. When Lane demanded Buckley reveal his CIA assignment, Buckley responded, “None of your business.”4 On another occasion, Buckley replied, “I decline to answer that question; it’s too stupid.” When Lane asked, “Have you ever referred to Jesse Jackson as an ignoramus?” Buckley commented, “If I didn’t, I should have.” (Liberty Lobby lost; Buckley later won his counter-suit.)
Buckley’s CIA stint was also the basis for a new venture in the 1970s: espionage novels. Blackford Oakes, a dapper Ivy League agent, scandalized some of Buckley’s puritanical comrades with his easy vulgarity and hearty libido but won critical praise – and a steady audience of readers. A string of engaging novels have since emerged, both inside and outside the espionage genre, including a commendable volume on the unlikely subject of Elvis Presley. Buckley’s literary contributions have been nothing if not prolific: 35 nonfiction books, 15 novels and more than 800 articles for National Review and 4,000 newspaper columns. Buckley has been known to pound out his syndicated column in 15 minutes, and he writes all his books during an annual one-month stay in Switzerland. He writes so quickly, he says, because he does not enjoy writing.
In addition to all this, Buckley has become known for his sailing, skiing, his mastery of the harpsichord and the great loves of his life: his wife Patricia, Bach and Peanut Butter.
He is less known for his sensitivity. One catches a glimpse of this listening to his reading of the audio book Right Reason, a collection of newspaper columns from the Reagan era. The final selection is his eulogy for his mother, in which his voice bears a grief that is unaffected and shattering. He has always borne his grief privately, finding solace in his faith. He even went so far as to write an “autobiography of faith,” entitled Nearer, My God. At times, it has been his church itself that caused Buckley grief. After the Second Vatican Council deprived him of his familiar liturgy, he felt (rightly) that Roman Catholics had been cheated out of the beauty and worship extended to their forebears for nearly two thousand years. Despite his misgivings, he tried to give the new Mass a chance, becoming a lector at his local parish (the largest in Connecticut). He quit after three years and still prefers the traditional Latin Mass. Nonetheless, he communes with a God who transcends ritualism and ecclesiology to comfort and refresh every one of His afflicted and weary children. And according to those who know him best, it is this faith that accounts for Buckley’s deep reserve of personal charity towards others so evident in all he does.
William F. Buckley Jr. founded a magazine that stands athwart history, yelling Stop – and history complied. He made eroding human enslavement his life’s ambition and lived to see history vindicate faith and freedom in the gulag’s rubble. He has pointed the way for thousands of American writers, debaters, thinkers and opinion-molders. He has invited us to share his most deeply held beliefs. He has now withdrawn another measure of his leadership, freeing his followers to determine the future of conservatism – and conservatives, for once, are mourning the gift of freedom.
1. The paranoid Right has never forgotten his treatment. Just two years ago, John Birch Society President John McManus wrote a 288-page tome entitled William F. Buckley: Pied Piper for the Establishment. In the ‘70s, Buckley was granted membership into the Birchers’ favorite hobgoblin, the Council on Foreign Relations.
2. Lindsay was considered likely to run for the Republican presidential nomination in the place of his mentor, perennial aspirant Nelson Rockefeller (then-governor of New York). The pressure of Buckley’s candidacy forced him to the party’s fringes, before he became a Democrat. It was in this race he uttered the line that has come to haunt him: asked what he would do if elected, he replied, “Demand a recount.”
3. After his election, National Review would invariably refer to James Buckley as “the sainted junior senator from New York.”
4. See John Judis’ William F. Buckley Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. Buckley spent nine months in the CIA in the 1950s and was tantalizingly vague about his duties. His patriotic service has led to endless leftist speculation. He has since revealed that while in Mexico, he edited The Road to Yenan, “a detailed account of Communist designs for world hegemony by Eudocio Ravines, an influential Communist in pre-war Peru.”