For decades, the lips of William F. Buckley, the maestro of "Firing Line" and other conservative affairs, would famously curl as he regarded the perceived follies of his liberal opponents.
But on a recent afternoon, the smile is only sweet as he considers any follies of his own, the bumps sustained on what Buckley, a confirmed man of the sea, might call the long voyage of life.
Personal letdowns? No. He has countless friends, loved his parents, has been married for more than 50 years and adores his son, author and humorist Christopher Buckley. Professional setbacks? The Soviet Union is dead, Ronald Reagan an iconic politician and the conservative movement, a movement he helped rejuvenate a half-century ago, stronger than ever.
"There's no Weltschmerz, or any sadness that permeates my vision," he says during an interview at his Park Avenue duplex. "There isn't anything I reasonably hoped for that wasn't achieved."
Now 78, Buckley has been executing one of the lengthier public withdrawals in recent memory, resigning in 1990 as editor of National Review, subsequently giving up both public speaking and "Firing Line" and, most recently, announcing he would sell off his controlling shares of the Review, the seminal conservative magazine he founded in the 1950s.
But even in supposed leisure, he is aware of the time, tapping his watch to remind a reporter that he has a schedule to keep. He still writes a syndicated column, plans another spy novel -- featuring his recurring alter ego, the dashing Blackford Oakes -- and is currently promoting "Miles Gone By," a collection of writings over the past half-century that serves as an informal memoir.
"What I have attempted is in the nature of a narrative survey of my life, at work and at play," he writes in the introduction to the book, which covers everything from childhood to sailing to politics to mortality.
The weather outside is bright and hot, but in the sitting room of Buckley's apartment the climate is cool and the color scheme as red as a sunburned communist: drapes, walls and bookshelves; sofa, carpet and chairs, all a velvety crimson, a palette Buckley assigns to the taste of his wife, Patricia, a prominent socialite.
In a gray sports coat, white khakis and matching shoes, the wavy-haired Buckley has an amiable, even casual presence, with his tie askew and shirt unbuttoned at the top. His face is jowly but still handsome. The voice, so familiar to fans of "Firing Line," is haughty and composed but warmed by a certain affection, a sense of play and camaraderie amid the most serious debate.
Left and right spend a great deal of time insulting each other these days, but Buckley's standing as a "civilized" conservative has allowed him to maintain at least cordial relationships with many on the other side. Walter Cronkite contributes an introduction to an audio disc that accompanies Buckley's new book. Other friends, or warm acquaintances, have included economist John Kenneth Galbraith and columnists Murray Kempton and Nat Hentoff, who recalled appearing on "Firing Line."
"Of all those kinds of programs, I thought his was one of the best," says Hentoff, a longtime columnist for the liberal Village Voice. "He really invited people he knew would disagree with him, and he was a very sharp and informed interviewer who didn't use shouting instead of argument."
Buckley can appear old-fashioned, even anachronistic, sounding like a character out of "The Philadelphia Story" as he calls his wife "duckie" and recounts maritime adventures in Bermuda and elsewhere on his first racing boat, the Panic.
But his mind-set has never seemed more contemporary. The communist dragon has been slain and government activism modified, if not eliminated. Ideas once unthinkable -- from eliminating the estate tax to forcing welfare recipients to work -- are now acts of Congress. Proposals such as privatizing Social Security, once thought suicidal for politicians, are now seriously debated.
"History would be different had he never lived and accomplished what he accomplished, which was to take the conservative movement and open it up to intellectual growth," says liberal author and columnist Eric Alterman.
"I don't think he's any great shakes as a thinker . . . but I respect him. He's nothing like the current neoconservatives, fighting a culture war. He's much more open to nuance and to honest disagreement."
Born Nov. 24, 1925, in New York City, William Frank Buckley Jr. is the sixth of 10 children of a multimillionaire with oil holdings in seven countries. The precocious young Buckley was only 8 when he wrote to the king of England, demanding payment of the British war debt.
Conservatives such as Reagan began as liberals and then turned to the right, but Buckley has been a conservative since he was old enough to speak his mind. He grew up in the type of household where jaws stiffened at the mention of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and Buckley never rebelled -- not even in jest.
Yale University, where he stood noticeably to the right of a liberal campus, was a kind of awakening. The perceived bias of both teachers and texts led him to write "God and Man at Yale," published in 1951, a book that angered Yale officials and established Buckley as a major new voice.
With his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, Buckley also wrote a defense of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954, "McCarthy and His Enemies." While condemning parts of the senator's anti-communist crusade, the book praised a "movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks."
In the 1950s, Roosevelt was dead but the New Deal remained a reigning influence; "intellectual" was almost synonymous with "liberal," from presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to academics such as Galbraith and Lionel Trilling.
Buckley helped change that perception when he founded National Review in 1955, declaring that he proposed to stand "athwart history, yelling 'stop' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it." He targeted not just the left but also mainstream Republicans such as President Dwight Eisenhower and the far-right John Birch Society.
Although it perpetually lost money, National Review built its circulation from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 in 1964, when conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential candidate. Circulation now stands at about 155,000.
"When Bill Buckley set out in the 1950s to found an intellectual magazine, conservatism was barely a presence at all. To the extent that it was a political presence, it was a blocking faction in Congress," conservative author and columnist George Will says.
"Before Buckley, conservatism had the face of Bob Taft, a distinguished American but not the sort of man who could get the campuses excited," Will says, referring to the dour Ohio senator known as "Mr. Conservative."
"Bill could go to the campus with that arch manner of his. And he was exciting and young and conservative. And all of a sudden, conservatism was sexy."
In 1960, Buckley helped found Young Americans for Freedom and, in 1961, was among the founders of the Conservative Party in New York, serving as the party's candidate for mayor of New York in 1965, a race he happily lost.
Although the landslide defeat of Goldwater in 1964 seemed to finish off the conservatives who "could now go back to their lairs and sing to themselves their tribal songs of nostalgia and recrimination and fancy," as Buckley once wrote, the right regrouped and rebounded. It took the White House in 1980 with the election of Reagan and has become a controlling force in the Republican Party.
"If the conservative apogee was Ronald Reagan," Will says, "then you could say that there would have been no Reagan without Barry Goldwater, who helped set the stage for Reagan, and no Goldwater without National Review, which was the organizing house organ for Goldwater, and without Bill Buckley there is no National Review.
"Ergo, you can argue that Bill is the most consequential journalist of his time and National Review the most consequential publication."
Buckley has never departed from such fundamental conservative beliefs as smaller government and anti-communism, but he has proved willing to break ranks when the evidence so leads him. He supported the 1977-78 treaty that returned the Panama Canal to Panama, a stance opposed by Reagan, among others. He advocates legalizing drugs and opposes the war in Iraq, after originally supporting it.
"On the basis of what I now know, I would not have proceeded," he says. "That's not really changing my mind. That is acknowledging empirical data which can change one's perspective."
He acknowledges his style is subtler than Rush Limbaugh's but says the conservative movement is large enough not to be defined by one man. Limbaugh attracts more attention, but Buckley believes National Review will further his own more considered tradition.
Asked if the world is a better place than it was 50 years ago, he says not necessarily, his relief at the Eastern bloc's demise shadowed by concern over the prevalence of skepticism and nihilism, what he calls "a philosophical looseness that I think is dangerous."
But his own life has been a happy affair, borne along by wealth and timing and a tireless spirit. And he does liken it to a voyage over the water, with Buckley still in command even as the hour grows late.
"You are moving at racing speed, parting the buttery sea as with a scalpel, and the waters roar by, themselves exuberantly subdued by your powers to command your way through them," he writes in his memoir's epilogue.
"Triumphalism" is how he sums up his journey, "and the stars also seem to be singing together for joy."