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A Journalist for the Ages

By George F. Will
Thursday, November 24, 2005

In his 40th anniversary toast to his Yale class of 1950, William F. Buckley said, "Some of us who wondered if we would ever be this old now wonder whether we were ever young." Those who were not young 40 years ago, in 1965, can have no inkling of what fun it was to be among Buckley's disciples as he ran for mayor of New York vowing that, were he to win, his first act would be to demand a recount.

Murray Kempton, the wonderful liberal columnist who later joined Buckley's eclectic legion of friends, wrote after Buckley's first news conference that the candidate "had the kidney to decline the usual humiliation of soliciting the love of the voters, and read his statement of principles in a tone for all the world that of an Edwardian resident commissioner reading aloud the 39 articles of the Anglican establishment to a conscript assemblage of Zulus." For conservatives, happy days were here again.

Back then, espousing conservatism was regarded by polite society, then soggy with that era's barely challenged liberalism, as a species of naughtiness, not nice but also not serious. Buckley, representing New York's Conservative Party, which was just three years old, won 13 percent of the vote. When the winner, John Lindsay, limped discredited from office eight years later, Bill's brother Jim had been elected, on the Conservative line, U.S. senator from New York.

Buckley, for whom the nation should give thanks, turns 80 on Thanksgiving Day, and National Review, the conservative journal he founded in the belly of the beast -- liberal Manhattan -- turned 50 this month. It is difficult to remember, and hence especially important to remember, the slough of despond conservatism was in 1955.

Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, for more than a decade the leading conservative in elective office, had died in 1953. Joseph McCarthy had tainted conservatism in the process of disgracing himself with bile and bourbon. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had so placidly come to terms with the flaccid consensus of the 1950s that the editor of U.S. News & World Report, the most conservative newsweekly, suggested that both parties nominate Eisenhower in 1956.

National Review demurred. When it nailed its colors -- pastels were not encouraged -- to its mast and set sail upon the choppy seas of American controversy, one novel on the bestseller list was Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," voicing the 1950s' worry about "conformity." National Review's premise was that conformity was especially egregious among the intellectuals, that herd of independent minds. The magazine is one reason the phrase "conservative intelligentsia" is no longer an oxymoron.

In 1964 National Review (circulation then: 100,000) did what the mighty Hearst press had never done -- determined a major party's presidential nomination. Barry Goldwater's candidacy was essentially an emanation of National Review's cluttered office on East 35th Street. Which is why an audience of young Goldwaterites took it so hard when, two months before the election, Buckley warned them that bliss would be a bit delayed:

"The point of the present occasion is to win recruits whose attention we might never have attracted but for Barry Goldwater; to win them not only for November the third, but for future Novembers; to infuse the conservative spirit in enough people to entitle us to look about us, on November fourth, not at the ashes of defeat, but at the well-planted seeds of hope, which will flower on a great November day in the future, if there is a future."

There was. It arrived 16 years later.

Author of more than 4,000 columns, and still adding two a week; author of 47 books, 18 of them novels; host of the "Firing Line" television program for 34 years; a public speaker, often appearing in as many as 70 lectures and debates a year, for almost 50 years; ocean mariner; concert harpsichordist -- his energy reproaches the rest of us. Married to a woman who matches his mettle, his proposal to her, made when he called her away from a card game, went like this:

He: "Patricia, would you consider marriage with me?"

She: "Bill, I've been asked this question many times. To others I've said no. To you I say yes. Now may I please get back and finish my hand?"

Buckley, so young at 80, was severely precocious at 7 when he wrote a starchy letter to the king of England demanding payment of Britain's war debts. Seventy-three years on, Buckley's country is significantly different, and better, because of him. Of how many journalists, ever, can that be said? One.

georgewill@washpost.com

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