Bill Buckley was the founder of the modern conservative movement. Others clearly made major contributions — Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan of course — but in the 1950s and 1960s Buckley by his words and his actions forced the reigning Liberal Establishment to acknowledge that a major new political force had emerged in America.
I say “actions” because the founding of National Review in 1955, the creation of Young Americans for Freedom in 1960, the birth of the Conservative Party of New York in 1962, and his campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965 were all political acts — with Bill Buckley the guiding force behind all of them.
Of course he was a master of words — one million, two million, who knows how many he composed in more than sixty years of writing? 35 best-selling non-fiction books, starting with God and Man at Yale; 15 best-selling novels, starting with Saving the Queen; 4,000 newspaper columns; host of “Firing Line”, the longest-running weekly public affairs program in television history, hundreds of lectures and debates on every major college campus.
And oh, the incorrigible rapier wit.
After the Chernobyl, meltdown, he wrote: “The Soviet Union has finally contrived to give power to the people.”
On the CIA: “The attempted assassination of Sukarno last week had all the earmarks of a CIA operation. Everyone in the room was killed except Sukarno.”
A suggested ad campaign for the New York Times: Beneath a smiling picture of Fidel Castro, the words, “I Got My Job through the New York Times.”
He never said no to a friend. When I asked him last spring to come to Washington and help celebrate the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial, he hesitated and then, although already suffering from several illnesses including the emphysema that eventually killed him, agreed to take the train from Connecticut.
That warm June evening he was in high spirits — enjoying the company of old friends such as Joe Lieberman and Jack Kemp. We presented him with the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom — joining such past recipients as John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Elena Bonner. He talked briefly about the blessings of liberty and the evils of tyranny and then suddenly made his apologies and left abruptly, already besieged by the infection that would put him in the hospital within a few days.
It was his very last public appearance, although he continued to write his newspaper column and work on a new book up to the very day of his death.
George Will provided this genealogy in 1980 shortly after Ronald Reagan’s landslide presidential victory: “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, and the spark in 1980 became a conflagration.”
When I am asked how important Bill Buckley was to the conservative movement, I can think of only one reply: Would there be the earth without the sun?