Erudite Voice of the Conservative Movement
Thursday, February 28, 2008
William F. Buckley Jr., 82, the intellectual father of the modern American conservative movement, who helped define its doctrines of anti-communism, military strength, social order and a capitalist economy, died yesterday at his desk in his Stamford, Conn., home. He had diabetes and emphysema, but the precise cause of death has not been determined.
Buckley was a magazine editor, syndicated columnist, television and radio talk show host, novelist and a witty and gifted orator and raconteur. In 1955, at the age of 29, he founded National Review, a magazine whose mission, he declared, would be "to stand athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!' "
In his public persona, Buckley often was described as a "Renaissance man of the right." He had been an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. He spoke with a patrician accent and a polysyllabic vocabulary. He was urbane, charming and erudite. His wit was trenchant and his sarcasm biting. Lyndon B. Johnson, he once said, was "a man of his most recent word."
President Ronald Reagan called Buckley "the most influential journalist and intellectual of our era." National Review, Reagan said, "is to the West Wing of the White House what People magazine is to your dentist's office."
Buckley's syndicated newspaper column, "On the Right," appeared in hundreds of newspapers, including The Washington Post, and his television program, "Firing Line," was carried nationwide on the Public Broadcasting Service. And his magazine, with a circulation today of about 150,000, has influenced three generations of conservative thinkers.
"Through the National Review, he forged the conservative coalition as we know it that's endured for three or four decades," current National Review editor Rich Lowry said yesterday in a telephone interview.
To Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Kennedy insider, Buckley was simply "the scourge of American liberalism" -- a label worn with pride.
In the early 1950s, when Buckley stepped onto the political stage, conservatism was rudderless, in turmoil and very noisy. Joseph R. McCarthy, the Republican Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, was making loud accusations about communist influences in the federal government, U.S. armed forces were fighting in South Korea, and Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), the longtime conservative standard-bearer, had lost the 1952 Republican presidential nomination to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Into this maelstrom marched Buckley, convinced that the time was ripe for his new magazine.
"It can give the Right the kind of decent image it needs, instead of the image that some people are giving it now," biographer John B. Judis quoted him as saying. Buckley pointedly broke ranks with the John Birch Society, rejecting anti-Semitism and other extreme views of the right wing.
By the time he founded National Review, Buckley had published his first major book, "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom" (1951), in which he accused the faculty of his alma mater of a pervasive bias against religion, individualism and capitalism. The book sparked a heated debate, which only helped elevate Buckley's public profile. Academicians tended to see it as a polemic against liberal education, and some suggested it was a product of Buckley's "militant Catholicism."
Over the next five decades, he would write more than 50 books, ranging from an account of his Catholic faith to spy novels, featuring a dashing CIA agent named Blackford Oakes. He wrote best-selling travel books, including "Atlantic High" and "Airborne," based on his own journeys on land and sea, plus children's books, a novel about Elvis Presley, political treatises and several volumes of autobiography.
"One of the things he always told me," his son, writer Christopher Buckley, said yesterday, "is that industry is the enemy of melancholy."