All of my adult life, William F. Buckley Jr. has been a player on the national stage. It is hard to believe that Buckley is no longer with us; that he has to be moved in our mental computers from an active folder to one labeled memory.
Thousands of writers have claimed that Buckley was the father of modern conservatism. Maybe. What is certain is that Buckley has carried the conservative standard from the time he wrote his seminal book, “God and Man at Yale.” He followed this with the founding of National Review in 1955. National Review sought to give an intellectual patina to the business-dominated conservatism of the Eisenhower era.
Buckley was a grandee; a boisterous intellectual who, at some level, never left the debating society at Yale. Above all, Buckley was a man of fun.
His conservatism was never in tow with the conservatism of the Republican Party. It was Buckley conservatism–as much informed by the high spirits of European aristocracy as it was by the yeoman farmers of America.
Buckley was hugely imaginative: He did things that had never been done before. His television program, “Firing Line,” was all Buckley: intellectuals disagreeing with wit and erudition. For 33 years it was a mainstay on PBS–which at the time of the program’s founding, in 1966, was the only network for intellectuals. While many conservatives were damning PBS, Buckley was quietly remaking it with “Firing Line.” In typical fashion, Buckley did not want to see his program become the product of a committee or university when he moved on. So he struck the set: “Firing Line” ceased production, but it is still remembered as an example of how television can do talking heads well.
His son, the author Christopher Buckley, said that Buckley’s contribution to the conservative movement was, among other things, to drive “the kooks” out of it. He broke with the John Birch Society and kept his distance from the radicalism of Pat Buchanan. Buckley thoughts on talk radio and extreme conservatives, like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, have not been recorded.
The conventional wisdom is that Buckley paved the way for Barry Goldwater to run for president. And the Young Americans for Freedom, who Buckley organized to support Goldwater, became the foot soldiers in the Reagan Revolution. But it seems to me that Buckley was always outside the conservative movement. His importance was as a provider of ideas and a tutor of young conservative writers, ranging from George Will to David Brooks. Most major conservative thinkers pass through National Review.
Buckley was not a fixture in Washington. He was not published in The Washington Post. He was not a courtier in the Reagan administration, as was George Will.
Many conservatives loved Buckley in principal, but kept their distance in practice. They worried about some of his not-so-conservative positions, like calling for the legalization of marijuana, and his enthusiasm for continental Europe. He loved Switzerland and retired there to write many of his books.
Even in religion, Buckley was not quite part of the movement he was credited with founding. Evangelicals embraced conservatism, and conservatives embraced evangelicals. Buckley, however, remained a very devout, very orthodox Roman Catholic.
Buckley tried to understand popular taste, but he confessed that he could not get the hang of it–especially rap music. Buckley was born a patrician who would never have to worry about money. He could apply his considerable talents and energy to his interests, including wine, food, literature and sailing.
Sometimes, Buckley seemed bored with politics. It is said that out of the public arena, he did not discuss politics.
Buckley had many favorites, most of whom shared his theatricality but not his political views. He was a close friend of John Kenneth Galbraith, the left-wing economist. He was enchanted by Malcolm Muggeridge, a radical British journalist and roue, who converted to Catholicism later in life and wrote a book about Jesus.
Everyone who worked at National Review, or was a friend of Bill, used the same word to describe the ethos: fun. Buckley was fun to be around and it was enormous fun to have him on the national stage. Sometimes the fun was mischievous, as when Buckley proposed that after he finished his term as president, Eisenhower should run as a vice president on the Nixon ticket. It was a joke, but it was one that sent scholars running to the books and lawyers pondering the legality of it. Then there was the time Buckley ran for mayor of New York. There were strings of bon mots every day, and the press had to discipline itself to cover the serious candidates and not the entertainment provided by Buckley.
Buckley did not like debating politicians: He liked debating clever people such as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Michael Kinsley.
Buckley was a prodigious writer and is output ranged from politics to book reviews to travel articles. He was so industrious that he actually wrote a book about his own industry: a snapshot of two weeks in the life of one of the nation’s greatest dilettantes.
Buckley was without peer and appears to be without a successor.