After Marvin Liebman, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, privately distributed copies of a letter a few weeks ago announcing to his "best friend" William F. Buckley Jr. that he was coming out of the closet, he received a call from Bill's older brother, Jim, inviting him to dinner.

They went to I Ricchi and had a pleasant talk, without any mention of Liebman's impending public revelation. When the check came, Jim, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals here and a former U.S. senator from New York whose campaigns had been fueled by Liebman's fund-raising expertise, paid it and then lifted his glass.

"This is my way," he said with the characteristic Buckley grin, "of saluting an act of courage."

"And," says Liebman, sitting in his Dupont Circle apartment the other day reflecting on his life, "not another word was said on the matter."

In his moving letter -- published in the July 9 issue of William Buckley's National Review -- Liebman writes that "I am almost 67 years old. For more than half of my lifetime I have been engaged in, and indeed helped to organize and maintain, the conservative and anti-Communist cause. The names of some of the enterprises we helped launch may bring a nostalgic tug ... the American Committee for Aid to the Katanga Freedom-Fighters ... the Committee of One Million ... Young Americans for Freedom ... the Conservative Party of New York ... the Goldwater and Reagan campaigns."

And then: "All the time I labored in the conservative vineyard, I was gay."

The editor in chief's published response to his "brother in combat" and "dear friend" -- Buckley, two yearsyounger, was his godfather when Liebman became Catholic a decade ago -- was more formal, although he notes his "affection and respect" for Liebman. He writes that he understands the "pain" that society has inflicted on gays "sometimes unintentionally, sometimes sadistically. It is wholesome that we should be reproached for causing that pain." And he promises that National Review "will not be scarred by thoughtless gay-bashing."

However, Buckley writes, in "the Judaeo-Christian tradition" to which he adheres, homosexuality is considered "unnatural, whatever its etiology. ... Ought considerations of charity entirely swamp us, causing us to submerge convictions having to do with that which we deem to be normal, and healthy?"

Liebman chuckles at this.

"There's very little Bill could do that would distress me," he says. "He's been my best and closest friend. That's just the way he is. I don't feel remotely put down by it. You know, he has these crazy ideas -- Judeo-Christian bull. But he's a nice man."

As for "etiology," Liebman writes simply, "This was not my choice: the term 'sexual preference' is deceptive. It is how I was born: how God decreed that I should be." The Roman Catholic Church, he believes, "teaches love with restrictions: 'You can love, but love only the way I tell you to love. You can love only to procreate.' "

"I won't talk about his sexuality," said Buckley in a phone conversation from his home in Stamford, Conn., Friday. The man who once called Gore Vidal a "queer" on national television and suggested in his newspaper column four years ago that HIV-positive individuals have this fact tattooed on their buttocks, said that on questions of gay rights he and Liebman "simply disagree."

"I'm aware," he said, "that there are two schools of thought about how many {gays} can be steered in the right direction."

Liebman says nothing could have steered him differently, and he believes this to be the case with other gays. "I'm stuck with this," he says. "Who wants this?"

Friday Liebman wrapped up the week's work at the Federal Trade Commission, where he's director of special projects, and left for Stamford for a small gathering of family and friends to celebrate Bill and Patricia Buckley's 40th wedding anniversary. Arriving back in Washington last night, Liebman said he and Buckley discussed the matter amiably and Buckley was "very cool about it; he was very nice."

"Knowing Bill has absolutely changed my life," says Liebman, who was persuaded into the conservative camp from Marxism after meeting the young author of "God and Man at Yale" in New York in the early '50s. "He's been the most important man in my life, and Pat has been very important. It was Pat who taught me about finger bowls and manners and all that sort of stuff, who gave me sophistication."

Buckley declinedFriday to call his wife to the phone to talk with a reporter, saying, "I wouldn't do that. She wouldn't talk about it."

Before Liebman came to Washington from New York in 1980 to join the Reagan Revolution, serving as public relations official at the National Endowment for the Arts and in various other posts, it was a rare weekend when he wasn't to be seen socializing around one of the two pools (one indoor) at the Stamford house with Pat and Bill and close friends, or sailing on one of Buckley's yachts.

Yet it was never mentioned that he was gay.

"The most important part of my life was never discussed with them, never verbalized," he says. "It was a secret. Now it's not a secret."

In a sense, Liebman says, "my whole life was a lie, and it was terrible. I was ashamed. Life was made miserable because you were gay."

Gay-bashing on the political right particularly pained Liebman, and in his letter in National Review he writes that "in many years of service to The Cause I've sat in rooms where people we both know -- brilliant, thoughtful, kind people -- have said, without any sense of shame, vulgar and cruel things about people who through no fault of their own happen to be different in their sexuality."

His decision to come out, he writes, was motivated partly "because I fear that our cause might sink back into the ooze in which so much of it rested in pre-NR days {Buckley founded the magazine in 1955}. In that dark age the American Right was heavily, perhaps dominantly, made up of bigots, anti-Semites, anti-Catholics, the KKK, rednecks, Know Nothings, a sorry lot of public hucksters and religious medicine men."

Now, Liebman writes, "too many of our friends have recently used homophobia to sell their newsletters, or to raise money through direct mail for their causes and themselves." He elaborates on these themes in an interview published in the July 19 issue of the Advocate, a national gay newsmagazine.

Buckley said yesterday that he thinks Liebman's fears on this score are "terribly exaggerated, that the conservative movement ... is disintegrating into a series of discrete plots which are anti-Catholic, antisemitic, anti-gay. The conservative movement is entirely wholesome. I don't see happening what he sees happening."

Buckley said his views are not simply theological. "After all, Freud was hardly a theologian. He said it was unnatural. The gays hate him above all others."

"I didn't know that about Freud," said Liebman Friday, informed of this remark.

Until the weekend, the two friends hadn't spoken since Buckley edited Liebman's letter for publication a month ago, because the Buckleys then took off for a yachting cruise off the Dalmatian coast, followed by a cruise in the Baltic aboard William Simon's yacht Freedom, during which, Buckley said with a chuckle, "I wrote a piece on my Dalmatian cruise for Travel magazine."

Liebman said he's certain the Buckleys knew he was gay, even though the subject never came up.

"I was totally accepted," he said. "I really feel very much a part of the Buckley family. A good number of Bill and Pat's friends are gay -- intellectuals and theater people, just wonderful, amusing people. But you just never speak about it. Pat and I used to giggle-giggle, you know, we'd have a little gossip about who was and who wasn't. But with Bill you didn't mention it."

If Liebman's life has been "tremendously enriched" by the Buckleys, he speculates that he may have enriched theirs too, by allowing them to "accept the unacceptable. To become full human beings, they had to do that, had to go out of their way to do it. Because it was very important to Bill to be a full, caring, loving human being no matter what else he was."

And thus, says Liebman, there came about another example of the strange magic of the human condition -- "a short, rather stout Jew from Brooklyn, this WASPy Catholic from Connecticut, and we've been such good friends and colleagues! We've worked together on so many things. What can I say? I love him. And her."

Liebman has been a quiet, behind-the-scenes worker in the conservative cause, but he became a kind of legend nevertheless. It was a quarter of a century ago that the writer John Gregory Dunne, in an essay titled "Marvin in Manialand," described him as the "house flack and amiable evangelist of the Conservative Revival."

"I am," Liebman was quoted as saying then, "the agitprop of the Right."

He helped raise the money to launch National Review, and perfected techniques of mass-mail fund-raising (Richard Viguerie was a protege) that fueled decades of conservative activism and -- at least in the often mythological lore of the Movement -- resulted eventually in the election of Ronald Reagan, the decline of communism in Eastern Europe and new hope for the American economy.

Now, Liebman says, he realizes that he was a behind-the-scenes type because "it's been impossible for me to receive love because this whole business of hiding all my life has crippled me emotionally." The son of a garage owner in Brooklyn -- a "blue-collar capitalist" -- Liebman spent six months at New York University, and was active with the Young Communist League at least in part because "then I stopped having a miserable time. I was paid attention to, and I had a contribution to make."

In the early '40s he served in the Army Air Corps as a private in Africa and Italy until his major finally demanded, " 'Are you a Jew faggot?' and I said, 'I guess I am.' " He received a general discharge -- another fact that he felt he had to hide from everyone -- and returned to New York and public relations jobs.

In 1946 he joined the Irgun, the Palestine underground group, and wound up in a British prison camp in Cyprus. After his release in 1947 he returned to public relations and met Elinor Lipper, author of the 1951 book "Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps," who convinced him that the Soviet system was promoting the opposite of the international peace and brotherhood that he had sought through Marxism.

Then he met Buckley on a PR assignment and began his political -- if not personal -- journey to the right.

Today, Liebman says, he deeply regrets all those decades of silence. "By not speaking about it," he says, "you're denying who you are, what you are. To let it be known that you are a different person, to be accepted as such, that is a great comfort, and it's so great for this new generation of gay people! With my generation, you killed yourself rather than be exposed."

In coming out he's been surprised to learn, among other things, that "nobody really cares, so my message now for my gay friends is, 'Get out and loosen up, just let it all hang out.' The public is so forgiving, and really there's nothing to forgive. Come on out -- the air is great!

"The air in the closet was really sort of stultifying."