This is a truth: It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. This is a fact: When (the third day in his cradle, I'll wager) Bill Buckley decided that darkness was descending on Yale and the rest of the West, he resolved to light a giant festive bonfire.
He did. It is called contemporary conservatism. He has just turned 60 and his magazine, National Review, has just turned 30, so it is time for me, whose writing career began at NR, to write an appreciation.
There is a misapprehension that to disagree with Bill is to risk disintegrating, scorched and crinkled, beneath the fire of his ire. Actually, he knows that anger is a useful servant but a bad master. When he decided that Yale (like much else, including me) was unsatisfactory, he did not reduce his loyalty, he redoubled his allocation of energy toward improving it. It will be impossible to write a history of America in the last half of the 20th century without acknowledging the weight of Buckley's works. Of how many journalists can that be said?
Bill once wrote that sailing and skiing are the purest sports because they involve sublime collaboration between the participant and natural forces -- wind and gravity. That thought is quintessential Buckley, a flash of insight couched as cheerful dogmatism. His degree of dogmatism often is inversely proportional to the gravity of the issue.
Thirty years ago, when NR nailed its colors -- no pastels, please -- to its mast and set sail, bobbing out upon the blue water of American controversy, the list of best-selling books included Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." Launching NR required positive thinking because there was then so much conformity in the nation's intellectual life, which was swathed and smothered in the gray mental flannel of a bland liberalism.
As a sailor, Bill knows the truth of this maxim: Voyaging is victory. There can be ample exhilaration in the mode of venturing. His voyage to the victory of the conservative movement began as a lonely journey in a small sloop. The early years were spent tacking into strong winds. But Prince William the Navigator undertook something no mere Magellan ever tried. He worked to change the wind. He did change it, using words.
And such words. As someone once said of a poet: "He kept, as it were, a harem of words, to which he was constantly and absolutely faithful. Some he favored more than others, but he neglected none. He used them more often out of compliment than of necessity."
Throughout his exuberant public career, Bill has been stigmatized (yes, stigmatized) as "clever," meaning "merely" clever. People who have lost arguments to him have said they lost only -- only! -- because he is articulate, whereas they just cannot quite give voice to their razor-like thoughts.
But Bill's career as a controversialist has underscored, at the expense of adversaries, the fact that you cannot think what you cannot say. There is a book to be written on why this country ever came to consider verbal facility the way English Puritans considered church ornamentation: as Satan's work.
Politically committed people live in constant danger of becoming politically obsessed and winding up like Gatsby, whose warped personality was the price of living too long with a single dream. The occupational hazard of political movements is terminal earnestness. Political journals often become lumps of dullness leavened only by outbursts of hysteria. What was said of Gladstone is true of them: they do not exactly lack a sense of humor, but they are not often in the mood to be amused.
Furthermore, because conservatism is realism about mankind's limitations, it does not lend itself to the flattering of the species. Conservatives are healthily disposed to detect signs that the clock of time is running down and things are going to wrack and ruin. This disposition frequently gives them a certain grimness. Bill's singular achievement has been a compatible marriage between conservatism and cheerfulness.
The range of Bill's pleasures -- sailing, harpsichords, peanut butter, Bach -- is so broad that none of them can really be a source. As has been said, happiness is not a what, it is a how. It is a talent and, hence, happy people have no particular reason for being so; they just are. Bill is fortunate, but not more so than we who have profited from his example.