William F. Buckley Jr., who died Wednesday, appropriately enough in his study, was one of the most stupendous educated Americans of the 20th century. He was among the founders of the American conservative movement that crept out of the New Deal years, advocating market economics, traditional social values, and aggressive resistance to communism. Such ideas were viewed disdainfully by the reigning orthodoxy, liberalism, but by the 1980s, Buckley’s positions pretty much had defeated liberalism wherever democratic elections could be held. Without him, this change would have been either impossible or much-delayed.
He brought together serious intellectuals, for instance James Burnham and Russell Kirk, to found what became modern conservatism’s first great organ of opinion, National Review. He and his colleagues wrote important books that served as the foundation of their movement and made them and their political leader, Sen. Barry Goldwater, popular figures in the early 1960s. Even members of the liberal media nodded in respect, at least until Goldwater allowed himself to be drafted as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964.
From that point on, the liberals’ template was set. Conservatives were stupid, warmongers and bigots through the Reagan years, the Gingrich years and right up to the present. But in the early 1960s, this was not the liberal consensus. Some respect was shown.
It was in those years that Buckley was everywhere assisting in the founding of conservatism’s student wing, the Young Americans for Freedom; its ideological forum, the American Conservative Union; and the Conservative Party of New York. He began what was soon one of the most popular syndicated columns and, in 1966, a weekly television debate series that became public television’s longest-running talk show. For years, he lectured and debated a couple of nights a week. In an era when intellect still flourished, Buckley was the finest debater in the country.
Often he turned up on college campuses, which is where I met him at the beginning of a friendship lasting 40 years. I had just founded my anti-radical magazine at Indiana University and invited him to lecture. His arrival was a whirlwind. He visited my pals on the world-champion Indiana University swimming team, reminding me that his Yale roommate was also an Olympian. He had to visit a bar named "The Stardust," telling me that it was the site where Hoagy Carmichael wrote, said Bill, "the greatest jazz song of the 20th century." And at a reception given for him by my fellow students, he fit right in. A professor nearby confided, "That man will be forever young. He will look like that as an old man." Alas, that was not to be. Bill just burned himself out, and — devout Catholic that he was — in his last months, longed for the hereafter. As his friend, the writer Taki Theodoracopulos, put it, Bill "was looking forward to being united with Pat," his recently deceased wife.
In his 82 years, Bill covered a lot of ground. Along with founding a political movement, he became a national figure as much for his superior sophistication as for politics. The feat will not be duplicated. He played the harpsichord, painted (I have an oil of his in my library) and sailed trans-atlantically. All of that — and he ran a third-party race for mayor of New York.
In a new and authoritative history of modern conservatism’s evolution, Alfred Regnery describes Bill’s 1965 mayoral race as one of the three great political campaigns that put modern conservatism on the map, along with Goldwater’s 1964 defeat and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory. It also launched Bill as an enduring national figure. With it and his weekly television show, fame enhaloed him. One could not walk through an airport with him or down a street in a major urban center without encountering autograph seekers.
Not often recalled is how Bill’s life changed during his half-century on the national scene.
At first, he was an energetic herald of the new conservatism, a rigorist for the conservative position. After the excitement of his mayoral race, however, he became much more political. By 1968, he had trimmed back his conservative orthodoxy and actively counseled the Nixon campaign. He encouraged other conservatives to join the Nixon administration. He held minor posts in the administration. Through all the ideological backsliding of the Nixon years, Bill stood by the president. In fact, he became more of a fixture in the Nixon administration than he would become in the administration of his close personal friend, Ronald Reagan. The explanation is Watergate. Bill stuck by Nixon until the autumn of 1973. The experience left him permanently disappointed in Nixon and stunned by the brutality of politics.
At the height of Bill’s political phase, he beheld dreams of the presidency. He entertained the idea of mounting a Conservative Party campaign in 1970 for Robert Kennedy’s old Senate seat and using the Senate as a springboard to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Watergate dampened his ardor. His biographer, John Judis, tells us that Bill resolved to write a novel, sail his sailboat across the Atlantic, and perform Bach on his harpsichord with a professional orchestra. That is precisely what he did and more. He buzzed the Titanic from a submarine, as his drift from politics continued.
Bill had many gifts, and one was a sense of the times in which he lived. He had a prevenient sense for shifts in the zeitgeist. Increasingly in the 1970s and 1980s, I think he recognized that high intelligence was leaving the world of political thought. When he began his campaign to advance modern conservatism, he was surrounded by learned, highly intelligent intellectuals on both the left and the right. As the years went on, they all passed away. His co-founders at National Review were among the first to go. Burnham and Kirk died long ago. Now even his adversaries are gone. His old debating opponent John Kenneth Galbraith died a few years back. Recently Norman Mailer and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. withdrew. Practically all the great figures of the ideological battles of Bill’s life are gone.
And so the baton is passed. On the conservative side, it passes from Buckley to Ann Coulter. I do not know as much about the liberal side.