William Francis Buckley Jr died Wednesday morning in Stamford, Connecticut, at age 82. Appropriately enough, he was working on a column. His death is the severing of the last remaining link between contemporary American conservatism and its founding generation.
In 1951, Bill Buckley made his name with God and Man at Yale, which critiqued his alma mater for its hostilities to capitalism and religion. Four years later, Buckley founded the National Review. He was 29.
Author and conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. in his office on the day he announced he was giving up control of the National Review to a board of trustees he selected, June 28, 2004, in New York
In its fecund early period in the 1950s and 1960s, the National Review helped introduce a modern conservatism into American political life. Buckley and his talented stable of editors and contributors gave coherence and shape to what he called “a fusion” of traditionalism, anti-Communist internationalism and free-market economics. Equally important, the magazine worked to discredit fringe elements like the John Birchers, the Jew-haters and the isolationists.
This coalition served as the intellectual foundation for the rising architecture of the conservative movement. In 1964, Barry Goldwater defeated the Eastern establishment’s Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican Presidential?nomination.?Though Goldwater badly lost, the ideas that animated his?candidacy?continued to gain support, and the 1980s saw the presidency of Ronald Reagan and its fruits, a revolution in domestic economic policy and the undoing of the Soviet empire.
These achievements might not have happened without Buckley, who was uniquely suited to preside over the often-feuding factions of the early political right. He liked arguments over principle, but he also had an uncommon talent for adjudicating disputes and building coalitions. And though Buckley had bedrock beliefs, he had a conservative’s distrust for systems and grand theories; his politics were pragmatic. His thinking and prose were governed by a critical-deliberative style that emphasized contingency and complexity. More than anything else, Buckley wanted to promulgate what he often referred to as “a thoughtful conservatism”.
He seemed to embody it. WFB was a public intellectual in the best sense of the term: His wit, learning, civility, his sophistication—all these hugely contributed to the respectability of the conservative cause. Buckley was also a tireless popularizer and political combatant. By the time his television programme Firing Line closed down in 1999, he had filmed 1,429 episodes. He edited the National Review for 35 years, gave 70 speeches a year over four decades, and filed a syndicated column until the end of his life. He wrote more than 50 books. He said he had “a cognate aversion to boredom”.
Author and conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. talking to reporters during a Conservative party press conference in New York, in 1968
Throughout, Buckley was rarely angry or grim. A famous debate in 1978 included the following exchange:
Reagan: “Well, Bill, my first question is why haven’t you already rushed across the room here to tell me that you’ve seen the light?” Buckley: “I’m afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you.”
In his last years, Buckley grew discouraged about what he considered the drifts of the American right. In an interview with this page, he had noted that “I think conservatism has become a little bit slothful.” In private, his contempt was more acute. Part of it, he believed, was that what used to be living ideas had become mummified doctrines to many in the conservative political class. At the Yale Political Union in November 2006—Buckley’s last public audience—he called for a “sacred release from the old rigidities” and “a repristinated vision”. It was a bracing reminder that American conservatives must adapt eternal principles to new realities.
His half-century at the centre of the American scene was a model of thoughtfulness and political creativity that remains as relevant today, perhaps more so.
The Wall StreeT Journal
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