The passing of a great man is sometimes accompanied by the end of an historical epoch. This is usually due to the titanic effect the man had on his times as well as a recognition that with his death, the world will change and that what transpired during the time he walked the earth can never be recaptured.
So it is with the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr. who died while at work at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 82 years old.
It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of Mr. Buckley on conservatism, on politics, on political writing, on television and mass communications, and on America herself. That’s why it will be so easy to write this obituary.
The bare bones outline of his life includes his birth in 1925 to a wealthy family of ten children, educated at Yale, a stint in the army and the CIA, a 57 year marriage to a beautiful woman who gave him a son Christopher, also famous in literary circles.
A fierce Catholic, Buckley never allowed his faith and politics to mix but rather had his religious beliefs inform his character and ideology. The only book he ever wrote about religion – Nearer my God – a truly original work that defended Christianity and the Catholic faith by using arguments gleaned largely from ex-protestants who had converted to Catholicism:
Though Buckley quotes large numbers of Protestants in this book, they are mostly Protestants who ‘’poped’’ (converted to Catholicism), like Cardinal Newman, Ronald Knox, Richard John Neuhaus and Arnold Lunn, and whose ‘’poping’’ stemmed more from thoughtful consideration than any sudden access of irresistible grace. The few unconverted Protestants who seem to play a part are Bishop Butler, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Colson, Charlton Heston and Buckley’s wife, Pat. Repeating the medieval saw that ‘’nothing contrary to reason’’ is required by true religion, Buckley uses a panel of the ‘’poped’’ to examine in their own words questions Buckley thinks important. These range from the oldest and most fundamental (the existence of God, the unique historicity of Jesus) to the most current and pragmatic (divorce, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women).
Only someone supremely confident in their own beliefs could use Charlton Heston and Reinhold Niebuhr to explain the mysteries of faith.
But this only demonstrates the extraordinary suppleness and depth of Buckley’s intellect. A man fascinated with language, he would use both the spoken and written word to elevate political dialogue, devastate his political foes, inspire legions of political acolytes, and invent, nurture, expand, and explain a political movement that when he started was moribund and something of a national joke.
The chronology of the rise of conservatism in the last half of the 20th century mirrors the growth in popularity of Buckley and his ideas. There simply is no other way to put it; Bill Buckley made it respectable to be a conservative again. The dominant American left in the 1950’s couldn’t dismiss this man and the movement he was building as his writings sparked interest in classic conservative ideas on college campuses across the country.
What Buckley sought to do was unite the traditionalist conservatives with libertarians – a marriage that today is strained beyond measure largely as a result of conservatism’s flirtation with big government and a curious desire to employ moral dogma as a club to try and tell people how to run their private lives. He succeeded in this unity of strange bedfellows by the force of his own vibrant personality reflected in his writings and by inventing a logical coherence that tied together the libertarian ideals of self sufficiency and unbridled personal freedom with the conservative belief in personal responsibility and a just moral order informed by Christian theology. He added a healthy dose of American exceptionalism and beliefs based on natural law to cement the marriage.
His first book, God and Man at Yale,, shocked the literary establishment by daring to criticize the stifling conformity of thought that had captured students and faculty at Yale University. In arguing for freedom of thought on campuses, Buckley was tarred by many critics as a “crypto-fascist,” a klansman, or worse. He shrugged it off and continued his efforts.
In 1955, he, along with another great conservative thinker Frank Meyer, founded The National Review, a conservative publication whose influence always far exceeded the number of subscribers. For the next 53 years and counting, the writings in that publication shaped and animated the conservative movement. Fearless, controversial, never boring, the best conservative writers of each succeeding generation always seemed to have gotten their start at TNR. Some notable contributors over the years have included Whittaker Chambers, George Will, Gary Wills, Russell Kirk, Joan Didion, Ann Coulter, and James Burnham.
Buckley mentored and encouraged several generations of writers and philosophers who argued, explained, and illuminated what conservatism was and what it stood for. In effect, he gave “word to the flesh,” inspiring debate at bull sessions on campus, across kitchen tables in American homes, all the way to the highest councils of government.
Buckley proved that ideas can spread like the plague with a virulence that can overcome powerful opposing forces that seek to stifle or marginalize them. We forget how overwhelmingly dominant liberalism was through the 1960’s. Conservatives were considered kooks – Birchers or Kluxers at worst. Rich, stuffed shirt, Babbitts at best. Buckley’s insurgency against this conformity struck a chord with large numbers of young people who joined the campaign to nominate Barry Goldwater.
Although a disaster, the election of 1964 saw the emergence of Reagan and more importantly, blooded a new generation of conservative activists who continued to be inspired and, in a very real way led, by Buckley and his writings.
To say that Buckley was a prolific writer would be to miss the point. He breathed projects into existence with a seeming ease born of a literary flair and a quick, penetrating mind. It is said he could write one of his 3500 “On the Right” columns in 20 minutes. His more than 50 books revealed a restless intellect as he wrote not only about politics but also culture, sailing, and his always fascinating personal experiences on the stump or on television.
He didn’t preach. He rarely tried to persuade overtly. Rather his writings shone a spotlight on an issue or a cause and forced the reader to evaluate and compare his own arguments against those of a master dialectition. In the end, persuaded or not, there was always a feeling of being uplifted by the arguments themselves.
This description of Buckley comes pretty close to capturing his public personae:
Editor, columnist, novelist, debater, TV talk show star of “Firing Line,” harpsichordist, transoceanic sailor and even a good-natured loser in a New York mayor’s race, Buckley worked at a daunting pace, taking as little as 20 minutes to write a column for his magazine, the National Review.
Yet on the platform, he was all handsome, reptilian languor, flexing his imposing vocabulary ever so slowly, accenting each point with an arched brow or rolling tongue and savoring an opponent’s discomfort with wide-eyed glee.
“I am, I fully grant, a phenomenon, but not because of any speed in composition,” he wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1986. “I asked myself the other day, ‘Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?’ I couldn’t think of anyone.”
In 1991, he had a falling out with long time friend and TNR contributor Joseph Sobran whose anti-Israeli columns Buckley felt crossed the line and became anti-Semitic. But Sobran never lost his affection for Buckley. This was written last year when Sobran heard the news that Buckley had been diagnosed with emphysema:
Over the years I came to know another side of Bill. When I had serious troubles, he was a generous friend who did everything he could to help me without being asked. And I wasnâ€™t the only one. I gradually learned of many others heâ€™d quietly rescued from adversity. Heâ€™d supported a once-noted libertarian in his destitute old age, when others had forgotten him. Heâ€™d helped two pals of mine out of financial difficulties. And on and on. Everyone seemed to have a story of Billâ€™s solicitude. When you told your own story to a friend, youâ€™d hear one from him. It was as if we were all Bill Buckleyâ€™s children.
It went far beyond sharing his money. One of Billâ€™s best friends was Hugh Kenner, the great critic who died two years ago. Hugh was hard of hearing, and once, after a 1964 dinner with Hugh and Charlie Chaplin, Bill scolded Hugh for being too stubborn to use a hearing aid. Here were the greatest comedian of the age and the greatest student of comedy, and Hugh had missed much of the conversation! Later Hughâ€™s wife told me how grateful Hugh had been for that scolding. Nobody else would have dared speak to her husband that way. Only a true friend would. If Bill saw you needed a little hard truth, heâ€™d tell you, even if it pained him to say it.
I once spent a long evening with one of Billâ€™s old friends from Yale, whose name I wonâ€™t mention. He told me movingly how Bill stayed with him to comfort him when his little girl died of brain cancer. If Bill was your friend, heâ€™d share your suffering when others just couldnâ€™t bear to. What a great heart â€” eager to spread joy, and ready to share grief!
Compared with all this, the political differences that finally drove us apart seem trivial now. I saw the same graciousness in his relations with everyone from presidents to menials. I learned a lot of things from Bill Buckley, but the best thing he taught me was how to be a Christian. May Jesus comfort him now.
A great light in the firmament of American letters has been dimmed today. Buckley leaves a conservative movement in turmoil, a victim largely of its own success – a success for which he was largely responsible. We must make our own way now, climbing on the shoulders of greats like William Buckley to reach ever higher, bettering ourselves and the human condition while being inspired by the irrepressible and indomitable spirit who passed into legend today.