Erudite Voice of the Conservative Movement

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
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."

Although primarily a political, cultural and social critic, Buckley did run for political office once. In 1965, he won 13 percent of the vote as the Conservative Party candidate for mayor of New York. He lost in a three-way race to Republican John V. Lindsay. Asked what he would do had he won, Buckley said, "Demand a recount."

William Francis Buckley Jr. was born Nov. 24, 1925, in New York, the sixth of 10 children. His father presided over an oil empire with holdings in seven countries and left his children a sizable fortune at his death in 1958.

Buckley attended the University of Mexico for a year, then served in the Army from 1944 to 1946. His father decided he should attend Yale, partly because of its proximity to the family home in Sharon, Conn. Buckley was chairman of the Yale Daily News student newspaper and a member of Skull and Bones, the secret society whose membership includes both Presidents Bush.

He married, Patricia Taylor, a Vassar classmate of his sister, on July 6, 1950, shortly after graduation from Yale.

During Buckley's year as a CIA agent in Mexico, he had for a case officer E. Howard Hunt, who decades later was convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping in connection with the Watergate break-in. Buckley helped pay his legal expenses.

With his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, he wrote "McCarthy and His Enemies" (1954), arguing, "As long as McCarthyism fixes its goals with its present precision, it is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks." Their book was published one month before the start of the televised Army-McCarthy hearings that led to McCarthy's censure by the Senate and downfall.

In its early years, the National Review attacked all U.S. policies it perceived as concessions to communism, condemned what it called the "welfare state" and defended the South's resistance to racial integration. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the magazine criticized President John F. Kennedy for his agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev not to invade Cuba in exchange for removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.

At the magazine, Buckley gave a start to conservative columnists George F. Will and David Brooks and published the writings of Garry Wills, Joan Didion and John Simon.

In 1960, Buckley helped the conservative Young Americans For Freedom organization, and in 1961, he was a founder of the New York Conservative Party. In 1970, his older brother, James L. Buckley, was elected to the U.S. Senate on the New York Conservative ticket.

His newspaper column, "On the Right," began in 1962, and his weekly television broadcasts of "Firing Line," began in 1966. Guests included presidents, prime ministers, conservative political leaders and occasional notables such as Groucho Marx. In November of 1967, he was on the cover of Time magazine.

Initially, Buckley and his magazine supported the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, under whom he served on the advisory board to the U.S. Information Agency and as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. But Buckley called for Nixon's resignation during the Watergate crisis.

Buckley retired as editor of National Review in 1990, and Firing Line's last broadcast was in December of 1999.

Over the years, Buckley had "trans-ideological friendships" with such liberals as economist John Kenneth Galbraith and columnist Murray Kempton. On occasion, he strayed from the conservative line. He supported the legalization of marijuana, after having sampled it aboard his yacht, which he sailed into international waters -- beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. law -- specifically for that purpose. He feuded bitterly with the writer Gore Vidal, and in a live appearance on ABC television at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi."

Buckley answered: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face."

In 1975, Buckley resolved to do three things before his 50th birthday that November: write a novel, sail his boat across the Atlantic and perform a Bach harpsichord concerto with a symphony orchestra.

He did not play Bach, but he did write novels, including the best-selling spy tale, "Saving the Queen."

He also made a transatlantic voyage aboard his 60-foot schooner, Cyrano, sailing with a crew of five from Florida to Spain.

In 1978, Buckley ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission when, with three associates, he was accused of failing to disclose information about the sale of an ailing company in which he held an interest to another company of which he was a director. Insisting he never "intentionally misled anyone," Buckley signed a consent decree signifying neither guilt nor innocence and agreed to indemnify stockholders $1.4 million for any losses.

At the 25th anniversary dinner of National Review in 1980, columnist Will called Buckley the "pope of the conservative movement."

With the election of Reagan as president that year, the Buckleys were occasional guests at the White House. But by then, Buckley's writings had mellowed.

"I had much more fun criticizing than praising," Buckley told The Washington Post in 1985.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded Buckley the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He wrote a column for National Review until his death and published a history of the magazine last year. Buckley's memoir of Barry M. Goldwater, the longtime conservative senator from Arizona and 1964 candidate for president, is scheduled for publication in April, and two collections of columns will appear later in the year.

His wife of 56 years, Patricia Buckley, died in April 2007.

Survivors include his son, Christopher Buckley of the District; three sisters, Priscilla L. Buckley of Sharon, Conn., Patricia Buckley Bozell of the District, and Carol Buckley of Columbia, S.C.; two brothers, James L. Buckley of Sharon, and F. Reid Buckley of Camden, S.C.; and two grandchildren.

Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.

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