William F. Buckley Jr., one of the most important intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century, died in February 2008. A few months later, Barack Obama was elected president. America has never been the same. Now Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, occupies the Oval Office, and many believe he is the worst president in our history. Buckley’s inheritance of wisdom—and wit—are needed now, more than ever. People who remember Buckley, and his times, wonder if the nation can survive.
Buckley is known as the founder of the modern conservative movement in the United States: he burst onto the scene in the early ’50s, with God and Man at Yale, his critique of the increasingly godless university in New Haven, Connecticut, and a few years later with the founding of National Review magazine, standing, as he put it, athwart history, yelling stop.
History may not have stopped then, but its pace was slowed to glacial compared to the breakneck pace of today’s suicidal race to disaster.
What was Buckley’s chief skill? Many would probably say it was writing. His output was prodigious: he wrote 55 books, 400 articles and book reviews, thousands of columns, and probably 2,000 or so speeches.
He could write—type—anywhere. I remember watching him on his boat, heeled over hard, typing a column that had to be phoned in as soon as we got to port. A friend remembers sitting next to him on the Eastern Airline’s shuttle from Washington to New York after they both, coincidentally, had interviewed a high-ranking visiting dignitary. Before the plane took off, Buckely had started typing his column. Before they landed, he’d finished it. I remember having a, uh, luxurious dinner at a restaurant with him one night (his wife, Pat, was away, and the staff was off). The wine was, yes, luxurious too, and I decided not to take the train home that night. I went upstairs at Bill’s and fell into a deep, yes, luxurious sleep.
Bill went up to his office and wrote two columns.
And yet: writing may have been Buckley’s second-most important skill. His most important skill, and contribution to America, may have been organizing. People forget—if they ever knew—how many conservative institutions Buckley started. Mao may have marched through the institutions; Buckley founded them. Buckley probably never intended to create the “conservative movement,” but he seems to have had a sense that organization was necessary—that organizations were necessary.
And so he created them: National Review of course, in 1955, then Young Americans for Freedom in 1960, the New York Conservative Party in 1962, the Philadelphia Society in 1964, and the Fund for American Studies in 1967. All of that became the housing for the conservative movement. And the New York Conservative Party became the vehicle for electing Buckley’s brother, James, to the U.S. Senate in 1970. That was a shocker to the reigning liberals: the times seemed to be changing.
And the people? Buckley had a gift: he collected people. In the early days of the conservative movement, many, perhaps most “practicing” conservatives were people Buckley had actually touched—like a bishop, laid hands on—and then sent out to be the apostles of conservatism. He met many on the campuses of colleges at which he spoke—dozens, scores, hundreds—which was precisely the point of making the effort.
I met him in 1965 during his campaign for mayor of New York City. Because I was the Conservative Party’s candidate for the New York State Assembly seat from West Harlem (stop smirking; I got 376 votes), I attended all the big rallies at which Buckley spoke and sat up on the dais with him and the other major candidates. At the end of the proceedings, he would slip me (and any other young adults on the stage) a note saying (more or less), “Meet me at the door and come for a drink,” and we would all go back to the Buckleys in his limo for a discussion on how the show that night had proceeded, on the state of the world, and maybe sailing, and perhaps music. He was collecting people as fast as he could.
He ran National Review as part finishing school for young journalists. Young people came for a spell and then were sent out into the world to practice the trade, as conservative journalists. For a time, I wrote editorials while practicing law in New York City, but Bill told me one day that simply wasn’t working: I should come to the magazine and write seriously. I did, and after submitting my first editorial as a paid staff member, I got a note back saying, “You are indeed a writer. The appropriate procedure is to kiss my ring.” It was signed: “The Muse.” That night at dinner, Pat Buckley said to me, “Dahnny, when Bill told me you could write, you could have knocked me over with a feather.” Thanks, Pat. (We became great friends.)
Of course, I was just one of many students at the Buckley School of Conservative Journalism. As with countless other students, the master saw the spark, blew on it until the fire was lit, then sent it out to carry the light to every part of the country.
Buckley understood the power of advertising. Over the objection of William A. Rusher, NR’s publisher, Buckley insisted on advertising NR in the pages of the left-wing New Republic magazine—just a little two-inch square ad quoting a funny paragraph from the editorial section of a recent issue of NR and inviting the reader to send away for a free copy of the magazine. That’s how this writer became a conservative, (and later, executive editor of NR, and eventually chairman of the board) and I know another writer who became a conservative the same way. There are probably scores, perhaps hundreds, of us. Maybe more.
And then there was his weekly television program, “Firing Line,” which aired from 1966 to 1999. In 2016, MIT professor Heather Hendershot wrote a book about “Firing Line” called Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line. The promo for the book on Amazon says, “With Firing Line, [Buckley] reached beyond conservative enclaves, engaging millions of Americans across the political spectrum. . . . [The book] shows how Buckley led the way in drawing America to conservatism during those years.” Over the years, millions watched. Millions learned. Millions undoubtedly became conservatives because of Buckley.
Buckley was a driven man: he worked without ceasing, his much-quoted reason being, “It’s the debt I owe to my country.” At lunch one day in Gstaad, Switzerland, we were all enjoying a leisurely lunch when suddenly he looked at his watch and announced he had to leave in two minutes! Back to work, to write—a column, an article, an introduction, a chapter of the next book, perhaps all of those.
And so, for half a century, he worked that way. And worked. And worked, nonstop. He had a country to save. He was paying off his debt.
He believed in freedom and knew, instinctively, the state was ever encroaching on the people’s freedom. I remember one day when he picked me up at the Stanford, Connecticut train station he said, “I become more libertarian every day.”
Becoming “more libertarian” is to be distinguished from becoming “a libertarian.” Buckley was not a libertarian. He believed in ordered liberty—perhaps the original political oxymoron. And discussion and debates on exactly those themes—liberty, order, and the role of the state—filled the pages of National Review for decades and educated generations of conservatives.
Did Buckley get everything right? Probably not. Some conservatives think he was wrong about “giving away” the Panama Canal. But he was in good conservative company: Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, James Burnham, and George Will, among others—though not Ronald Reagan.
He was also wrong on the civil rights bills, not when he opposed their enactment, but when he subsequently said opposing them had been a mistake.
In 2004 he said that “federal intervention was necessary.” But only six years earlier he had said that “the civil rights programs were a formulaic response to a real need and not by any means one that has proved as successful as an alternative means might have been.” In The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, published in 1995, Thomas Sowell wrote: “The Great Society’s racial meddling . . . yielded one setback after another. . . . In the decade after the Great Society . . . [b]lack-on-black crime soared in particular.” The biggest drop in black poverty took place during the two decades before the Great Society, as Sowell has cataloged. When the impact of Great Society programs was fully realized in the 1970s, the trend of black economic improvement stopped almost entirely.
And in the years since the enactment of the civil rights laws, we have seen the Left apply them in ways that were never intended: first to sex, and then to the grab bag of sexual perversions now sacrosanct to the far-Left.
Ten days before Bill died, Charles Kesler and I helped him manage his stair lift contraption and get him into bed—his emphysema was crippling, and fatal. But at least he could go to sleep pleased at how the country had changed on his watch: communism defeated, free-market economics widely understood, if not widely enough practiced, and some sense (amplified by President Reagan) that government could be, not the solution to our problems, but the cause of them.
It wouldn’t last. The soil must be cultivated, the crops watered continuously.
Now we have creeping chaos: the mainline press is completely corrupt, partners in crime with the neo-Jacobin totalitarians of the ideologically hard-left Democratic Party.
Intellectuals today seem not even to know what freedom, or conservatism, is. Even back in 2009, after the election of Barack Obama, Sam Tanenhaus wrote a silly book called The Death of Conservatism. In his last chapter, Tanenhaus wrote, “Culturally, too, these are conservative times. . . . [C]onservatives should savor the embrace of ‘family values’ by the nation’s homosexual population, who seek the sanctuary—and responsibilities—of marriage and childrearing.” Ha! Ha! That’s rich, isn’t it? You just can’t make that stuff up—even if you haven’t died laughing.
Next Tanenhaus—and all his woke friends?—will be claiming it’s conservative to allow children, without their parents’ knowledge, to “transition,” with all the appropriate drugs and surgery, to the opposite sex—except saying “opposite” implies there are only two sexes, which shows what a troglodyte you are.
And so the power of the state increases. The new masters are obsessed with race; for them there is no southern border; they have released violent criminals from jail, weaponized the FBI and the IRS against the non-woke, denied there are only two sexes, and will punish people who disagree; they jailed peaceful January 6 protestors (keeping some in solitary confinement), while praising Black Lives Matter protestors who killed and looted with abandon; they have changed the voting laws and seek to destroy the Electoral College and eliminate the filibuster, all the better to acquire and wield power, unlimited power against any who dare oppose them.
We have already seen the pressure the federal government put on Twitter in the closing days of the last presidential election not to reveal any information about Hunter Biden’s laptop in order to fix an election. The laptop story alone, if it had been made public, would most likely have changed the outcome of the last presidential election and the course of American history.
As the state’s power and reach grows, the people’s freedom shrinks. Buckley knew that. Americans who don’t yet, will discover how true it is. That’s why Buckley spent a lifetime opposing the growth of the state.
He was the quintessential man of the 20th century: freedom’s guardian angel in the flesh. If Americans are to remain free, Buckley’s successor is needed now more than ever. Where is he? Who knows? But we must not despair.
We should remember Bill Buckley’s admonition: “Despair is a mortal sin.”
And we also should remember his closing words to the capacity audience at the Madison Square Garden rally held to protest the visit of Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959: “The wells of regeneration are infinitely deep.”
The wisdom of William F. Buckley Jr. is as essential in this century as it was in the last one. Perhaps more so.