Thursday, February 28, 2008
READING SOME of the things written about William F. Buckley Jr., yesterday and over the past 30 years or so, one might get the idea that conservatism hardly existed in America in the immediate post-World War II era -- that liberalism, however defined, had driven all opposition from the field. This wasn't exactly the case. The halls of Congress did not lack for conservative voices: Midwest and Western Republicans who had never accepted the New Deal and all it represented, Southern Democrats fighting a long and ugly battle against racial progress and labor unions, demagogues looking for Reds under every bed.
Conservatism, in fact, was not so much impotent before Bill Buckley came along as it was incoherent. It was seen by the country's growing educated classes as lacking any intellectual respectability, and, to the extent it might be regarded as a "movement," it was vaguely associated with such outfits as the John Birch Society -- which regarded President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy -- or perhaps with Sen. Joseph McCarthy's reckless actions.
Onto this scene came Mr. Buckley, a young man of privileged background who emerged from Yale as a happy hellion railing against his alma mater for what he saw as its slavish adherence to the liberal line but doing it with an irrepressible verve and, now and then, a wink to the gallery. The magazine he founded, National Review, started life as something of a pariah in the 1950s, but it is now an organ (if never financially viable on its own) of what has become a broad and influential conservative intellectual establishment. The writers Mr. Buckley recruited for his magazine brought a new slant to the national debate. They were a mixed lot, as were Mr. Buckley's political ideas (he expounded some unpleasant racial ideas long ago and always had a soft spot for McCarthy), but many of them were impressively erudite, intelligent and persuasive.
Mr. Buckley himself never posed as a heavyweight, though he loved to use words of many syllables and wrote incessantly -- books, columns, articles -- right up to his death yesterday at 82. His defining characteristic was that he was a man of good cheer who rarely got nasty in print or in person and who cultivated friends across the political spectrum, listened to them, and delighted in engaging one and all in civilized discourse, of which he was something of a master -- one who will be missed.