In Memoriam: William F. Buckley, Jr.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.  A great friend of The Review.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR. A great friend of The Review.

Last Tuesday, February 27, marked the tenth anniversary of the death of American conservativism’s greatest exponents, William F. Buckley Jr. Over a long and industrious career in the media, Buckley founded National Review magazine, a leading journal of conservative thought and opinion, and hosted around fifteen-hundred episodes of his public affairs talk show, Firing Line. He was crucially responsible for the ascendancy of conservatism in the Republican Party and this country, championing an open, non-discriminatory movement that centered on both traditional values and free market economic principles. Through his brilliant writings, media presence, and force of personality, Buckley became the veritable icon of conservatism’s rise in America.

The effect of Buckley and his years of productive work for the conservative movement in American was immeasurably positive. George Will, the conservative commentator historian, wrote in National Review in 1980, “And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind…” If anyone deserves the “Great Communicator” title as much as President Reagan, it would be William F. Buckley Jr. He brought the cause and values of new American conservatism to the country’s people and paved the way for generations of conservative politicians, writers, and thinkers to follow him. We at The Review believe we are but one of the many spiritual descendants of Buckley’s conservative vision for journalism and thought in America.

As Heritage Foundation historian Lee Edwards once wrote, “Bill Buckley could have been the playboy of the Western world but chose instead to be the St. Paul of the modern American conservative movement.” With his class and privilege, Buckley could easily have been the indulgent scion of a rich family. However, he had another, higher calling in life, and that was to be a spirited defender of American liberty and traditions. He was a gifted man, who knew that he was too blessed to waste his life. Buckley’s creative talents extended beyond his role at National Review and his syndicated column, On the Right. Buckley brought the enormous power of his intellect and his personal vigor to all his endeavors.

Buckley was born in New York City in 1925, the sixth of ten children born to a wealthy family. After spending his earliest years in Mexico, Buckley received his primary education in France and England. English was actually his third mastered language, following Spanish and French. During World War II, Buckley finished his secondary education at Millbrook School in upstate New York. As the war was still ongoing, he enlisted in the Army and after completing Officer Candidate School was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He served in the U.S. for the remainder of the war and never experienced combat.

After the end of the war, Buckley enrolled at Yale University. He became the Chairman of the Yale Daily News. He was an accomplished debater in his college years and an active member of the Conservative Party of the Yale Political Union. He studied political science, economics, and history and graduated with honors in 1950. After his graduation, Buckley was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, and he served as an officer for two years, including one doing political action in Mexico.

Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale, was published in 1951; he took a critical stance towards his alma mater, condemning the university for forcing collectivism and secularism on its students. The book received considerable attention and criticism, giving the young Buckley a taste of his future in challenging the American Left. He joined a magazine known as The American Mercury but left after realizing that it was becoming racist and anti-Semitic. Buckley realized there was a desperate national need for a magazine of thoughtful conservative commentary.

In 1955, he founded National Review, his magazine which would actively foster the growing conservative movement in the United States. With National Review, Buckley became the torchbearer for a new American conservative movement that combined aspects of traditional conservatism with libertarian economic values and anti-communism. The mission statement printed in the first issue of National Review read, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Buckley sought to demarcate the boundaries of American conservatism. He denounced racists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, and racially-divisive political figures like Governor George Wallace of Alabama. He condemned the John Birch Society, a contemporary conservative organization which was among the furthest right in the American political mainstream. He rejected the objectivist ideology of Ayn Rand as well as her atheism. He envisioned a conservative movement that was open to all Americans who upheld its values and those of the U.S. Constitution, free from irrational hatreds and demagogy. He always prized reason and the thoughtful consideration of conservative beliefs, saying, “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.”

Buckley endeavored to take an active part in the political advancement of the conservative movement, even if that meant running for office himself. In 1965, he ran for Mayor of New York City as the candidate of the Conservative Party of New York, a right-wing third party. He challenged liberal Republican contender, John Lindsay, a fellow alumnus of Yale. Although he lost the mayoral race with only around 13% of the vote, his candidacy had reshaped the political landscape in New York by demonstrating that there was any support at all for solidly conservative candidates. John Lindsay, who won the election, would later defect to the Democratic Party, while Buckley’s older brother, James, won a U.S. Senate seat from New York in 1976 on the Conservative Party ticket.

Beyond National Review, Buckley brought conservative discussions and ideas to the popular consciousness. In 1966, Buckley launched Firing Line, his Emmy-award winning public affairs talk show. Defined by Buckley’s polite countenance and relaxed pacing, Firing Line hosted some of the most influential political figures of its day, with guests as far ranging as Dr. Henry Kissinger and Allen Ginsberg. His politeness never interfered with his debating ability; he was always able to dissect his guests’ views intelligently and to articulate points of both agreement and disagreement. Buckley was famous for his ability to trounce any verbal opponent with his robust vocabulary and argumentative skill. He delighted audiences on both sides of the political spectrum with his quick, acerbic wit.

In addition to his regular appearances on Firing Line, which ran for thirty-four seasons until 1999, Buckley brought his debating prowess to well-publicized exhibition matches against ideological adversaries. In 1965, Buckley famous debated American author and activist James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union on the topic of the American dream’s ongoing relationship with African-Americans. Over the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1968, Buckley sparred with American writer and public intellectual Gore Vidal in a series of televised debates. Though the open hostility of the debate series devolved into a lifelong feud between Buckley and Vidal, their verbal engagements were an enormous success with television audiences. Through these debates, Buckley showed his resolve and commitment to his principles in even the most public of arenas.

Over the 1970s and 80s, Buckley’s prominence within American conservatism continued to grow alongside the rise of conservative Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He hosted both of them on Firing Line, the latter while still a Presidential hopeful in the 1980 primaries. His ideological proximity to the Nixon White House landed him a spot on the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations in 1973. President Reagan was known as an avid reader and supporter of National Review, proclaiming once, “National Review is my favorite magazine.” President Reagan and Buckley enjoyed a long personal friendship, dating back to the 1960s. Though they did not always agree, they were close allies in the political struggles of their day. With the exaltation of President Reagan as an American conservative legend, Buckley, his friend and brother in arms, achieved iconic status as well.

Even as he grew older, Buckley never lost the drive to advance conservatism and defend American values and freedom. Buckley remained Editor-in-Chief of National Review until 1990 when he retired upon his 65th birthday. In 1991, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush. He was active in conservative politics even after his retirement from National Review and the end of Firing Line. He was critical of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, particularly concerning the War in Iraq. Up until the very end of his life, Buckley was hard at work on his syndicated column. He passed away in his study at the age of 82, after suffering a heart attack caused by emphysema and diabetes, on February 27, 2008. He may be gone, but his impact on this nation will never be forgotten — he will always be an inspiration to the young men and women of The Review.          

  • St_Robert_Bellarmine

    William F. Buckley called for a “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”

    “The thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union does or does not constitute a threat to the security of the United States, and we have got to decide which. If it does, we shall have to rearrange, sensibly, our battle plans; and this means that we have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.” ~ William F. Buckley, “The Party and the Deep Blue Sea,” January 25, 1952