William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review and arguably the founder of the modern American conservative movement, died today at the age of 82:
William F. Buckley Jr., who marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn.
Mr Buckley, 82, suffered from diabetes and emphysema, his son Christopher said, although the exact cause of death was not immediately known. He was found at his desk in the study of his home, his son said. “He might have been working on a column,” Mr. Buckley said.
Mr. Buckley’s winningly capricious personality, replete with ten-dollar words and a darting tongue writers loved to compare with an anteater’s, hosted one of television’s longest-running programs, “Firing Line,” and founded and shepherded the influential conservative magazine, National Review.
Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.
In remarks at National Review’s 30th anniversary in 1985, President Reagan joked that he picked up his first issue of the magazine in a plain brown wrapper and still anxiously awaited his biweekly edition — “without the wrapper.”
“You didn’t just part the Red Sea — you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism,” Mr. Reagan said.
“And then, as if that weren’t enough,” the president continued, “you gave the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.”
I cut my political teeth on much of what Buckley wrote, subscribing to National Review when I was in high school and watching Firing Line, which remains one of the most unique political talk shows ever produced and far more iintellectual and reasoned than what passes for commentary today on shows like Hannity & Colmes or The O’Reilly Factor. I didn’t always agree with what I read, but it was the starting path down a road that lead me to discover people like Milton Friedman, a Buckley favorite, and F.A. Hayek.
Buckley was also different from what passes for conservatism today. Much more rational, eloquent, and respectful of dissenting opinions. In the 1950s, he rejected any coalition with John Birchers or other anti-semites, realizing, correctly, that they would only marginalize the political goal he wanted to achieve:
“Bill was responsible or rejecting the John Birch Society and the other kooks who passed off anti-Semitism or some such as conservatism,” Hugh Kenner, a biographer of Ezra Pound and a frequent contributor to National Review told The Washington Post. “Without Bill — if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else — without him, there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country.”
And, since the libertarian movement had it’s roots in the rebirth of conservatism, one could make the case that libertarianism wouldn’t exist as it does today.
Buckley also had his libertarian streak. Back in 1973, he took his yacht outside the territorial waters of the United States and smoked marijuana to “see what it was like.” In later years, he publicly called for reform of the drug laws. And, though he supported the Iraq War in the beginning, by 2006 he was one of the few people on the right willing to admit that it was a failure.
He was, in other words, a thoughtful conservative. And there aren’t many of those any more.