A Profoundly Consequential Life
Woody Allen is reputed to have said that it was better not to meet people you revere -- the disappointment was always so crushing. But no one fortunate enough to meet or know William F. Buckley Jr., who passed away yesterday at the age of 82, could say that. A man of coruscating wit (he'd approve of that word), he was also, by universal acclamation, the most gracious man on the planet. Legend he was, but in a small group, it was always Bill who rushed to get a chair for the person left standing. It was always Bill who reached to fill your glass. It was always Bill who volunteered to give you a lift wherever you were going, insisting it was on his way.
The word "journalist" does not begin to encompass Bill Buckley's profoundly consequential life. In 1949, six years before the founding of National Review, critic Lionel Trilling spoke for the establishment when he wrote in "The Liberal Imagination": "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." Conservatives, Trilling continued, didn't so much have ideas as "irritable mental gestures."
And then came Bill Buckley, an intellectual starburst. Gathering a few refugees from the left to the masthead of National Review, Buckley famously announced in the 1955 maiden issue that his mandate was to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop." That's not precisely what happened -- not even the talents of Bill Buckley and his thousands of acolytes could hold back the tide of liberalism that swept the nation during the 1960s and 1970s. But the magazine did plant a flag -- and it did it with such style!
About a week after the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, National Review announced with regret that its "patience with the Johnson Administration is exhausted." To the great delight of his fans, Bill published reader letters to himself along with his replies in the "Notes and Asides" column. He called it "infield practice." A particularly nasty physician named Marshall Prickman penned an abusive letter insulting Bill for everything from his "stupidity" to his supposedly ugly face. Buckley published the letter, with this reply: "Dear Doc, Please call me Bill. May I address you by your nickname?"
Most of Buckley's readers drank in his erudite conservatism with the sort of gratitude that comes from years of privation. It is safe to say that pretty much all of the leaders of today's conservative movement were incubated by the blue-bordered magazine that arrived twice a month. Among his fans were a California actor named Ronald Reagan and a British shopkeeper's daughter named Margaret Thatcher. And if National Review did not stop history in 1955, by 1985 Bill Buckley and the magazine had indisputably torqued history in their direction.
But the magazine, Bill's first love, could not contain his titanic energy. He taped a weekly television show, "Firing Line"; wrote three elegant and learned columns a week; lectured across the country and the world; produced more than 50 books, both fiction and nonfiction; played the harpsichord and the piano; sailed the Atlantic and Pacific; and once even ran for mayor of New York (mostly as a didactic exercise). Asked what would be his first action upon being elected, he quipped, "I'd demand a recount."
Like many a star-struck youngster, I maneuvered to meet him when I was in college. To my amazement, he agreed to be interviewed for my yearbook. Determined to ask questions that wouldn't betray my outsized admiration for him, I posed the vaguely feminist query, "In what ways would your life have been different if you had been born female?" His reply: "I'd have seduced John Kenneth Galbraith and spared the world much pain."
We who knew him delighted in his company -- and the list of his illustrious friends included prime ministers and presidents. But Bill Buckley was also a conscientious leader. It was he who set out to cleanse the conservative movement of some of its extremist elements -- a responsibility he shouldered, sometimes at considerable personal pain, throughout his long career. It is difficult to think of a comparable figure on the left. The credit for reviving conservatism as a respectable intellectual tradition must be widely shared. Milton Friedman, Whittaker Chambers, F.A. Hayek, Thomas Sowell, Robert Bork, Irving Kristol and many, many more provided essential support. But no one could match Bill Buckley for elan. He was our Samuel Johnson and Errol Flynn rolled into one. We "shall not look upon his like again." RIP.
The writer, a columnist for Creators Syndicate Inc., was on the staff of National Review from 1979 to 1981.