NEW YORK (AP) – William F. Buckley Jr., the erudite Ivy Leaguer and conservative herald who showered huge and scornful words on liberalism as he observed, abetted and cheered on the right’s post-World War II rise from the fringes to the White House, died Wednesday. He was 82.
His assistant Linda Bridges said Buckley was found dead by his cook at his home in Stamford, Conn. The cause of death was unknown, but he had been ill with emphysema, she said.
Editor, columnist, novelist, debater, TV talk show star of “Firing Line,” harpsichordist, trans-oceanic sailor and even a good-natured loser in a New York mayor’s race, Buckley worked at a daunting pace, taking as little as 20 minutes to write a column for his magazine, the National Review.
Yet on the platform he was all handsome, reptilian languor, flexing his imposing vocabulary ever so slowly, accenting each point with an arched brow or rolling tongue and savoring an opponent’s discomfort with wide-eyed glee.
“I am, I fully grant, a phenomenon, but not because of any speed in composition,” he wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1986. “I asked myself the other day, `Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?’ I couldn’t think of anyone.”
Buckley had for years been withdrawing from public life, starting in 1990 when he stepped down as top editor of the National Review. In December 1999, he closed down “Firing Line” after a 23-year run, when guests ranged from Richard Nixon to Allen Ginsberg. “You’ve got to end sometime and I’d just as soon not die onstage,” he told the audience.
“For people of my generation, Bill Buckley was pretty much the first intelligent, witty, well-educated conservative one saw on television,” fellow conservative William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said at the time the show ended. “He legitimized conservatism as an intellectual movement and therefore as a political movement.”
Fifty years earlier, few could have imagined such a triumph. Conservatives had been marginalized by a generation of discredited stands—from opposing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to the isolationism which preceded the U.S. entry into World War II. Liberals so dominated intellectual thought that the critic Lionel Trilling claimed there were “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
Buckley founded the biweekly magazine 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.” Not only did he help revive conservative ideology, especially unbending anti-Communism and free market economics, his persona was a dynamic break from such dour right-wing predecessors as Sen. Robert Taft.
Although it perpetually lost money, the National Review built its circulation from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 in 1964, the year conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential candidate. The magazine claimed a circulation of 155,000 when Buckley relinquished control in 2004, citing concerns about his mortality, and over the years the National Review attracted numerous young writers, some who remained conservative (George Will, David Brooks), and some who didn’t (Joan Didion, Garry Wills).
“I was very fond of him,” Didion said Wednesday. “Everyone was, even if they didn’t agree with him.”
Born Nov. 24, 1925, in New York City, William Frank Buckley Jr. was the sixth of 10 children of a multimillionaire with oil holdings in seven countries. The son spent his early childhood in France and England, in exclusive Roman Catholic schools.
His prominent family also included his brother James, who became a one-term senator from New York in the 1970s; his socialite wife, Pat, who died in April 2007; and their son, Christopher, a noted author and satirist (“Thank You for Smoking”).
From a 2004 interview with Jamie Glazov in FrontPage Magazine:
FP: So how do we fight militant Islam? What tactics will yield victory? If President Bush called you tomorrow and asked you what he should do next in Iraq specifically and in the War on Terror in general, what would you tell him?
Buckley: Divide et impera. We must vigorously pursue Muslim leaders who know of the sequential violations by Al Qaeda of the Islamic faith. The goal would be the honest one of charging with infidelity those who practice what Al Qaeda has been doing. Residual disputes on doctrine need to be treated as empirical challenges to co-existence as, we know from history, went on for many years among Muslims and Christians and Jews. In any such conversation with the president I would stress this point.
FP: Give us your report card on President Bush in the War on Terror
Buckley: A grade given to Mr. Bush in the matter of the war on terrorism would require scales of performance by others in similar situations. The one tactile confrontation we all have is at airports, and I decline to believe ingenuity has been exercised there. Though that perhaps reflects my having to bare my toenails to somebody or other a couple of days ago. Another measure is a posteriori: If there are no terrorist attacks, progress is being made.
FP: The behavior of the Left in the War on Terror has really reached new pathetic and pathological lows. “Progressives” are now excusing, and even supporting, religious zealots who persecute women and gays — and suppress all the democratic rights that are supposedly the center of progressive ideology.
This is nothing new, of course. The Left did the same with our totalitarian adversaries throughout the 20th century. But it completely boggles the mind how, for example, radical leftist feminists are now making excuses for regimes where they themselves would be executed simply for showing an ankle in public. What is your insight into the leftist’s urge to promote regimes where his/her own existence would be extinguished?
Buckley: The Left has priorities, and the priority this time around is to damage the United States. Conversely, their fear is that to support our missions overseas would undermine their whole anti-US structure–so let the gays burn and the ladies be flogged. What does give me pause is their failure even to decry the crimes you mention.
……FP: What did you think of the Democratic National Convention? Carter struck me as especially pathetic. This is a President who lost two crucial allies of America’s, Iran and Nicaragua, to our enemies and who stood by when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In many respects, the rise of militant Islam was spawned under – and because of – his incompetent presidency. And yet he is still lecturing – moralistically at that — the Republicans on how to conduct foreign policy. What did you make of this in particular and of the DNC in general?
Buckley: Dear Jamie, you are answering my questions for me. Thanks. Carter is a lost cause, and lost causes don’t get any loster.
William F. Buckley, Jr., R.I.P.
By the Editors of National Review:
Our revered founder, William F. Buckley Jr., died in his study this morning.
If ever an institution were the lengthened shadow of one man, this publication is his. So we hope it will not be thought immodest for us to say that Buckley has had more of an impact on the political life of this country — and a better one — than some of our presidents. He created modern conservatism as an intellectual and then a political movement. He kept it from drifting into the fever swamps. And he gave it a wit, style, and intelligence that earned the respect and friendship even of his adversaries. (To know Buckley was to be reminded that certain people have a talent for friendship.)
He inspired and incited three generations of conservatives, and counting. He retained his intellectual and literary vitality to the end; even in his final years he was capable of the arresting formulation, the unpredictable insight. He presided over NR even in his “retirement,” which was more active than most people’s careers. It has been said that great men are rarely good men. Even more rarely are they sweet and merry, as Buckley was.
When Buckley started National Review — in 1955, at the age of 29 — it was not at all obvious that anti-Communists, traditionalists, constitutionalists, and enthusiasts for free markets would all be able to take shelter under the same tent. Nor was it obvious that all of these groups, even gathered together, would be able to prevail over what seemed at the time to be an inexorable collectivist tide. When Buckley wrote that the magazine would “stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’” his point was to challenge the idea that history, with a capital H, pointed left. Mounting that challenge was the first step toward changing history’s direction. Which would come in due course.
Before he was a conservative, Buckley was devoted to his family and his Church. He is survived by his son Christopher. Our sadness for him, and for us, at his passing is leavened by the hope that he is now with his beloved wife, Patricia, who died last year.
He died while at work; if he had been given a choice on how to depart this world, I suspect that would have been exactly it. At home, still devoted to the war of ideas.
–Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review Editor
“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”
–William F. Buckley, Jr.
“Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”
–William F. Buckley, Jr.
“I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.”
–William F. Buckley, Jr.
My sincere condolences to William F. Buckley’s family as well as the ones’ at the National Review.
I didn’t always agree with Bill’s opinions, but there’s no denying that he was perhaps the most entertaining, quick witted, intelligent, and discerning editor and writer of the Conservative genre.
I used to take great pleasure watching the way he dissected liberal opponents in debates. He would use his rapier intellect to bat them around as a cat would a ball of yarn, for amusement.
He was a delight. He will be missed.
Say hello to President Reagan.