William Frank Buckley Jr., a founding father of America’s modern conservative movement, departed earth for heaven this week.
Bill was both a civilizer and witty provocateur. Of the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt, he joked, “Some came to pay their last respects. Others to make sure.”
His passing brought many warm-hearted eulogies — not only from the right, but also from prominent liberals such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. This broad spectrum of affection is a tribute to the bridges Mr. Buckley built and principled decency he embodied.
I first felt the direct light of Bill’s presence in San Francisco in 1964, days in advance of the Republican Convention that would nominate Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.
I then was head of a national affiliate of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and remember a small private gathering of conservative activist leaders where we wondered why, on the eve of Goldwater’s victory, we felt unhappy.
The reason, we recognized, was that each of us was accustomed to battling as individual underdogs. But in this golden moment and place conservatism was triumphant. We were now mere ordinary voices in a winning majority.
YAF was founded in Buckley’s home in Connecticut. The intellectual rallying point for young conservatives was Buckley’s magazine National Review, founded in 1955. Bill’s light was fusing lonely, isolated conservatives into a coherent movement.
Bill Buckley would be the catalyst who helped nominate Goldwater (who lost) and therefrom Ronald Reagan (who won and became the most influential president of the last half of the 20th century).
Buckley laid the groundwork for all the conservative victories to come.
In 1966, Buckley launched his syndicated show "Firing Line," which for its first 240 episodes aired on commercial television. For a generation of young thinkers it became “must see” viewing.
In 1971, "Firing Line" moved to the Public Broadcasting Service. I by then was an on-air commentator for the West Coast Production Center of PBS in Los Angeles and understood why public broadcasting made this decision.
Buckley provided a fig leaf for PBS, protection against any allegation by then-President Richard Nixon that this network was entirely left wing. But because he loved to debate liberals, a large share of Buckley’s guests — with whom he was more than polite and fair-minded — were the same liberals PBS would have aired anyway.
PBS, then as now, was overwhelmingly leftist in its orientation, and its world view was shaped by European socialism and Marxism.
In my opinion, the powers behind PBS were generally terrified by American conservatives, advocates of rugged individualism and free markets who could easily defeat leftists in debates.
But William F. Buckley Jr., like others whose careers he helped launch such as George Will, was not an American conservative.
Buckley was, by philosophy, style and temperament, largely a European conservative, an eccentric Tory, an aristocratic caricature who loved monarchism and played the harpsichord. He was precisely what the Marxist critique was designed to attack. He was PBS’s perfect token right winger.
But, alas for PBS socialists, Bill Buckley was also charismatic.
Son of a wealthy oil man, he was by one account worth $11 million the moment he was born — and that was 1925, when $11 million still had value.
His first language was Spanish, learned from Mexican nannies. His second language was French, learned as a first grader in Paris.
Bill began learning his third language, English, at age 7 in London Catholic schools, where he also acquired a mannered British style of speech and writing, and a love of sesquipedalian words seldom used in America.
A European conservative who came of age in an anti-communist era, Buckley saw moral and spiritual rearmament as essential to the survival and triumph of Western culture. A devout Roman Catholic, he loved the Latin mass.
Buckley revived but also reshaped American conservatism. He purged the movement of anti-Semitic elements and the John Birch Society. He also purged Ayn Rand and her Objectivists.
But Bill was American enough in his later years to occasionally describe himself as a “libertarian conservative” or outright libertarian. As the ideological threat of communism receded in history’s rear view mirror, Buckley endorsed decriminalization of marijuana. He also found more to approve in individual liberty and less to applaud in centralized state power.
I remember seeing Buckley in a Los Angeles TV studio where, minutes earlier, he had told "Firing Line" viewers that he had smoked marijuana “legally, in mid-Atlantic.” I joked with him that the marijuana, to be “legal,” must have arrived on his yacht like the olive branch on Noah’s Ark — carried to mid-ocean by a dove.
Buckley was always kind to me, e.g., using his syndicated column to promote my causes such as People Against Pepski. He joined my denunciation of Pepsico for making a lucrative deal with the Soviet Union while Soviets were air-dropping colorful bombs disguised as toys to blow the hands off Afghan children.
Buckley's powerful intellect worked overtime to reconcile American ideals of individual liberty with Tory and Church preference for society and order. In his 1990 book "Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country," His sense of noblesse oblige led him to propose requiring conscription-like “voluntary” coercive “national service.”
And his cultural roots in Latin America may have influenced his break with American conservatives over the Panama Canal. Buckley approved President Jimmy Carter’s treaty to give the canal to Panama.
Buckley reportedly suffered emphysema. I remember sending him my "Reader’s Digest" investigations into the dangers of smoking to share with his chain-smoking wife Pat, who died last April.
Their son Christopher wrote "Thank You For Smoking," a novel about a tobacco lobbyist, from which the movie of the same name was made.
Last December, Bill wrote that he would now “forbid smoking in America.”
Buckley reportedly died while writing an article in his home office, where his desk was as cluttered with information as his mind was neat. This is how a writer and thinker would wish to go.
God Bless You, Bill. And thank you.
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