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William F. Buckley Jr., RIP By: Ben Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 28, 2008

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 150,000 subscribers, including the president of the United States, and is recognized as the intellectual fountainhead of modern conservatism.

This sea-change can largely be attributed to the work of its founder. More than anyone else, William F. Buckley Jr. came 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.

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. Buckley’s evident wit, patrician mannerisms, and expansive vocabulary defied caricature. 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, recruiting a roster that included James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Ralph de Toledano, and Frank Meyer. Clearly, neither the sharp-tongued young sophisticate nor his peers could be dismissed ad hominem. Assembling this masthead 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.

Thus unified, NR’s staff opened fire on prevailing academic, literary, and political culture and mores. 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, Buckley would call for the disbarment of William Kunstler. In National Review, and then in his syndicated newspaper column, “On the Right,” 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, now regarded by some as a classic. And the tide began to turn.

Throughout his controversies, Buckley showed an even-handedness rare 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 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. Fifteen 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 tirelessly organized 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). The American Conservative Union sprang from a similar meeting, and ACU counted Buckley as a board member until it established itself. 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 to forestall the political ambitions of liberal Republican John V. Lindsay. [2] Conservatives believed Lindsay, an antiwar Republican and blue blood acolyte of Nelson Rockefeller, regarded the office as a steppingstone to the White House. (They were right; Lindsay ran a dismal campaign for president in 1972 as a Democrat and endorsed George McGovern.) Opposing him as the Conservative Party candidate, Buckley fetched 341,226 votes (13.4 percent of the vote), nearly 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 elect George Pataki governor, the CPNYS is still going strong, even while its counterpart, the Liberal Party, lies in ruins.

Bill Buckley also took the Right somewhere it had never been before: television – specifically, public television, bringing a tiny degree of much-needed balance to that medium. Beginning in 1966, “Firing Line” brought more than 1,500 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, making it “the longest running program with a single host” – he sponsored regular “Firing Line debates,” rescuing this dying form of discourse 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, and 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 revealed, “I think that was the only time I ever saw him really caught off balance.”)

He is, however, most memorable for turning 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 countersuit.)

Buckley’s CIA stint was also the basis for a new venture in the 1970s: espionage novels. Upon recoiling from Robert Redford’s presentation of The Agency in 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, Buckley did what he has always done: fought bad speech with good speech. 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. He went on to produce a string of engaging fiction, both inside and outside the espionage genre, including a commendable volume on the unlikely subject of Elvis Presley. His son Christopher, a noted satirist in his own right, recalled after his father’s passing, “One of the things he always told me is that industry is the enemy of melancholy.” Buckley’s literary contributions have been nothing if not prolific: more than 35 nonfiction books, 20 novels, and more than 5,600 newspaper columns. Buckley has been known to pound out his syndicated column in 15 minutes, and he long wrote his books during an annual one-month stay in Switzerland. He wrote so quickly, he said, because, while he enjoyed communicating, he did not enjoy the act of writing.

Yet his pen found its way through every conceivable subject, including his own private Roman Catholic faith in his “autobiography of faith,” Nearer, My God. Buckley made no pretense about his concerns with his church. 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 devoted himself to the traditional Latin Mass. Nonetheless, he communed 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 knew him best, it is this faith that accounted for Buckley’s deep reserve of personal charity towards others so evident in all he did.

That friendship was commented upon by those who knew him: Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Henry Kissinger, David Niven, George F. Will, Mona Charen, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, and scores of writers, politicians, thinkers, and prognosticators on both sides of the aisle whose lives or careers he touched (or in some cases, started).

The friendships continued even as Buckley receded from the spotlight. He 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. In 2004, Buckley relinquished ownership of National Review, citing “concerns about his own mortality.” In “retirement,” he remained a dynamo of intellect and erudition, churning out his twice-weekly column. He will have (at least) two books published posthumously. Although the precise cause of death is unknown, Buckley was found dead at his desk, likely working on a forthcoming book about Ronald Reagan. (His previous work, Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, is set to be released in May.)

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 invited us to share his most deeply held beliefs.

In addition to all his literary and political accomplishments, William F. Buckley Jr. became known for his sailing, skiing, his mastery of the harpsichord, and the great loves of his life: his wife Patricia, the music of Bach, and Peanut Butter.

He was less known for his gentle sensitivity. One catches a glimmer of this while listening to his audio recording of Right Reason, a collection of WFB newspaper columns from the Reagan era. The final selection is the eulogy he wrote for his mother, Aloise Steiner Buckley, in which his voice bears a grief that is unaffected and shattering. One can nearly perceive how he must have felt since April 15, 2007, when his beloved wife of 56 years, Patricia, passed away. (His retreat from the public was, in part, to nurse the woman he affectionately called “Ducky.”) One may also hear echoed in his strained voice the grief conservatives will experience at each moment of our political lives when confronted with the irreplaceable void his death has left us.

William Frank Buckley Jr., RIP.

A version of this article appeared in the July 5, 2004, edition of FrontPage Magazine. Its original publication garnered a kind note from William F. Buckley Jr.


1. The paranoid Right has never forgotten his treatment. Just six 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. It was in this race that William F. Buckley uttered the line that has come to haunt him: asked what he would do if elected, he replied, “Demand a recount.” Few remember the exchange earlier in the same press conference. When asked how many votes he could conservatively expect to win, he replied, “Conservatively speaking, one.”

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.”

Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of FrontPage Magazine and co-author, with David Horowitz, of the book Party of Defeat. He is also the author of the books Teresa Heinz Kerry's Radical Gifts (2009) and 57 Varieties of Radical Causes: Teresa Heinz Kerry's Charitable Giving (2004).

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