William F. Buckley Jr.
The grandiloquent intellectual who made conservatism respectableWilliam F. Buckley Jr.1925–2008
In the decade following World War II, conservatism as a political movement was all but dead. FDR and the New Deal had triumphed, and literary critic Lionel Trilling was able to declare, with little dissent, that liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America. But that changed in 1955 when a charming, polysyllabic 29-year-old Connecticut patrician named William F. Buckley Jr. founded the magazine National Review and unleashed a counterrevolution that continues to this day. With his erudite wit, high living, and abundant use of $10 words, Buckley not only made conservatism fashionable, he made it fun.
“He came by such a manner naturally,” said The Boston Globe. One of 10 children of a millionaire oilman, Buckley, a pious Catholic, was aristocratic and outspoken early on. “At 7, he wrote the King of England to demand repayment of Britain’s World War I debt to the United States.” At Yale, he was a big man on campus as chairman of the Yale Daily News and a member of the secret society Skull and Bones. But he was also a rebel. In his first book, God and Man at Yale (1951), he fiercely attacked the university for embracing a “secular-humanist ethos” that was soft on communism. His cri de coeur became a national best-seller, thanks in part to the $10,000 he gave his publisher to promote it.
Buckley followed up with McCarthy and His Enemies (1954), a defense of the red-baiting Republican Wisconsin senator, said The New York Times. But Joe McCarthy’s smear tactics and demagoguery had seriously discredited the anti-communist cause, and the conservative movement was split among libertarians, isolationists, and other factions. So with $100,000 from his father (and $290,000 from other contributors), Buckley launched National Review. Its purpose, Buckley announced in the first issue, was simple: “It stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so.” From the start, National Review condemned the welfare state, praised capitalism, and otherwise “argued for a conservatism based on the national interest and a higher morality.” In time, it became the bible of the political Right. “I founded a magazine that has published 20 million words that wouldn’t have been published,” Buckley once said.
Deemed “the scourge of liberalism” by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Buckley wore that badge with pride, said the Los Angeles Times. As the GOP chanted “I like Ike,” Buckley rejected Eisenhower’s moderation, declaiming, “We prefer Ike.” He supported the war in Vietnam, hailed Spanish dictator Francisco Franco as a hero, and once suggested that AIDS victims be tattooed on their buttocks. His contrary example inspired countless young protégés, and he would mentor them as they grew up to fill the ranks of government, think tanks, and like-minded conservative publications. Yet Buckley was hard to pigeonhole. In the 1960s, “he could be seen riding a motorcycle through the streets of New York, his fashionably long hair blowing in the wind.” He printed favorable pieces about the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. And in 1972, Buckley advocated legalizing marijuana, smoking it aboard his yacht in international waters, beyond the reach of U.S. law. “I have,” he declared, “sort of grandfather privileges on the subject.”
“Although primarily a political, cultural, and social critic, Buckley did run for political office once,” campaigning, as a lark, to become mayor of New York City in 1965, said The Washington Post. When asked how many votes he expected, he replied, “Conservatively speaking, one,” and quipped that if elected, he would demand a recount. (He got 13.4 percent of the vote.) His real element, however, would always be print. He “claimed to write his syndicated column in 20 minutes” and wrote 5,600 of them, as well as more than 50 books, including a children’s book he finished in three-quarters of an hour. “Buckley was a man of wild energy,” giving 70 speeches a year, sailing across the Atlantic, jetting around the world on the Concorde, skiing at Gstaad in Switzerland, and conducting a “blue-chip social life” with Pat, his late wife of 56 years, whom he called “Ducky”—an endearment she reciprocated.
Buckley may have been best known to the general public as the elegant voice of Firing Line, the PBS show he hosted for 1,504 segments from 1966 to 1999, said the Chicago Tribune. Unlike the moderators of today’s televised shout fests, Buckley did decorous verbal battle with guests ranging from John Kenneth Galbraith to Muhammad Ali. Exuding a “patrician, faintly British-sounding accent, accompanied by a rakishly arched eyebrow,” he would fill the studio with obscure words such as “jejune” and “stochastic” as he moved in for the kill. “You’ve been on the show close to 100 times over the years,” Buckley told New York politician Mark Green. “Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything yet?” When Tom Wolfe claimed he’d broken new ground in his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Buckley responded, “There’s been moral turpitude forever. So what on earth is new about this?”
Not surprisingly, he had his detractors, said Newsday. One of his most enduring feuds was with Gore Vidal, who never appeared on Firing Line because, he said, “I don’t like fascism much.” Robert F. Kennedy also declined to appear, prompting Buckley to reason, “One can hardly expect baloney to come willingly to the slicer.” Yet his basic bonhomie was proof that friendship could transcend politics. “You can’t stay mad at a guy,” said Norman Mailer, one of his biggest detractors, “who’s witty, spontaneous, and likes good liquor.”
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991, Buckley lived to see National Review celebrate its 50th anniversary, in 2005. Sometimes he would part company with conventional conservative wisdom, most famously when he declared the Iraq war a failure. Always, however, he maintained faith in the movement he spawned and, especially, in his own wisdom. Once, when a journalist asked him how he regarded himself, he said he was “a perfectly average middle-aged American, with, however, a jeweler’s eye for political truths.” When the interviewer asked, “Who gave you your jeweler’s eye?” Buckley tilted his head skyward a bit and replied, “God.”