It would be an exaggeration to say that William F. Buckley singlehandedly built the conservative movement in the United States, but only a slight one.
Buckley died earlier today at the age of 82, leaving behind an incomprehensibly large legacy.
Shortly after his graduation from Yale -- and the publication of his first book, God and Man at Yale -- Buckley and a few friends established National Review, which quickly became for the right side of politics the premiere journal of debate and discourse, the equivalent to Partisan Review and Commentary on the left. (Commentary, of course, eventually gravitated to the right itself, but that is another story.)
It is hard to believe today, when we can read The Weekly Standard, Reason, The American Conservative, Liberty, WorldNetDaily, FrontPageMag, and so many print and online publications with a conservative or libertarian bent, that only 50 years ago, National Review was it. There was nowhere else for conservatives interested in politics and culture to go to be nourished intellectually. National Review spawned them all.
Under Buckley's erudite leadership, disparate elements of conservatism -- libertarians, old-school Tories, anti-Communists, traditionalists (basically everybody except anti-Semites, Birchers, and Objectivists) -- came together in what Buckley's colleague, James Burnham, characterized as "fusionism." Until the end of the Cold War, this ragtag coalition held together, not least because of Buckley.
It was not only through publication that Buckley led the movement. He was also an organizer. It was at his home in Sharon, Connecticut, that Young Americans for Freedom was established. The names of those at Sharon that day in 1960 read like a Who's Who of conservative politics: Bob Bauman, Dick Cowan, Stan Evans, Jim Kolbe, to name just a few (and only the ones I've met personally). YAF blazed the trail that led to Barry Goldwater's nomination for president by the Republican Party in 1964, and eventually to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. It is said that without Buckley, there would have been no Goldwater, and without Goldwater, no Reagan.
An intellectual's intellectual, Buckley had a wide range of interests. He wrote more than three dozen books on topics as different as sailing and espionage. Some of his books were fiction, some memoir, some policy analysis, some simply witty. His twice-weekly newspaper column appeared in hundreds of publications (more than 5,600 columns in all), then compiled into the biweekly National Review.
Equally at ease as after-dinner speaker or master of ceremonies, Buckley reveled in oral as well as written discourse. He was host of Firing Line, a PBS television show, that was the civilized precursor to Hardball and The McLaughlin Group.
Buckley called himself a "libertarian journalist," but he was more of a traditional conservative, with a twist. He took his yacht into international waters so he could smoke pot legally, and then became a crusader to end the federal prohibition on marijuana. He gave Dick Cowan, one of the founders of Young Americans for Freedom, a cover story in National Review to make the case for marijuana legalization. Cowan later became executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
A traditional Catholic, he was not averse to putting dissenting thought in his own magazine. When his old friend, Marvin Liebman, the founder of modern direct-mail fundraising (and first executive director of YAF, who gave Richard Viguerie his first job in the movement), chose to come out as gay, Buckley put him, too, on the cover of National Review. As Liebman describes it in his book, Coming Out Conservative:
For almost four decades, I was one of the leading anticommunist and conservative activists in the United States. During most of those years, I worked in close coordination with my friend William F. Buckley, Jr., whom I consider to be the founder of modern American conservatism and the prime articulator of its philosophy.Liebman's book has many anecdotes about Buckley that offer a glimpse of his private side, something different than what the public might have seen. I recommend it highly to those interested in both Buckley and the birth of the modern conservative movement.
A little more than a month before my sixty-seventh birthday -- on June 7, 1990 -- I wrote to him, and asked that he publish a letter in his magazine, National Review. The letter announced that I was gay.
After asking me if I had fully considered the personal ramifications of such a disclosure, Bill agreed to run my letter. He said that he felt he must also publish his reply.
We'd known each other for almost thirty-five years. I assumed he knew I was gay, but I never brought up the subject. And it never seemed to matter so long as the word was never spoken -- certainly not to Bill or his wife, Pat, or to my other straight friends. Just don't talk about it, for heaven's sake.
In the spring of 1990, however, it did matter very much to the American Right, an amalgamation of several constituencies: dedicated anticommunist groups; the "religious Right," always seeking more money-raising ideas; the relatively new "traditional American family values" organizations' and the politicians whose jobs and appeal depend on their ability to promote fear and bigotry and then convince their constituents that they are the only ones who can hold the fort against whatever enemy they have created....
My letter to Buckley said:Anti-Semitism is something that, happily for the history of the last three decades, National Review helped to banish at least from the public behavior of conservatives. National Review lifted conservatism to a more enlightened plane, away from a tendency to engage in the manipulation of base motives, prejudices, and desires; activity in my view which tended to be a major base of conservatism's natural constituency back then. Political gay bashing, racism, and anti-Semitism . . . are waiting to be let out once again. I worry that the right wing . . . will retun to the fever swamps..... Bill Buckley took on a personally difficult task when he committed himself to reply publicly to my coming out letter. I'm certain I caused him great pain. He is a devout and doctrinaire Roman Catholic bound by the theological strictures with which he grew up and to which he still holds fast. Eleven years before, he had been my sponsor when I entered the Catholic church.
In his reply he said,I honor your decision to raise publicly the points you raise . . . but you too must realize what are the implications of what you ask. Namely, that the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is aligned with, no less, one way of life, become indifferent to another way of life. . . .
National Review will not be scarred by thoughtless gay bashing, let alone be animated by such practices . . . You are absolutely correct in saying that gays should be welcome as partners in efforts to mint sound public policies; not correct, in my judgment, in concluding that such a partnership presupposes the repeal of convictions that are more, much more, than mere accretions of bigotry. You remain, always, my dear friend, and my brother in combat.
When William Buckley ran for mayor of New York in 1965, a reporter asked him what the first thing he would do upon being elected. Buckley replied: "Demand a recount."
With the loss of Bill Buckley, the census of great men is diminished. We, too, should demand a recount.