William Buckley - the Father of Modern Conservatism


I have always wanted to meet William F. Buckley, and now that he has passed away I will never have the chance.  He occupied no small place in my life, a distant but important influence who had inspired me greatly, as he had so many. 

Whenever I opened up my National Review (fortnightly, of course), and saw the advertisement for an NR cruise somewhere, I was always tempted to go and meet the conservative heavyweights on board for the event, the older, venerable ones, and the emerging stars as well.  But, especially, I wanted to rub elbows with the great one himself, to actually speak with the intellectual patriarch of the modern American conservative movement, the one whose efforts moved conservatism from a peripheral, loosely organized array of fringe and legitimate characters to a mainstream and dominant political force that led to landslide electoral triumphs by Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union.

It is probably fair to state that Buckley did not invent conservatism but simply recognized it as the essence of American democracy; he gathered up its various threads, gave it a voice and intellectual framework, and re-presented it to the American people who saw in it their own sentiments and cherished beliefs articulated and expressed.  It was a philosophy of governance and system of thought and values that had touched nearly everyone yet had gone undefined; it hence remained hidden and indistinct, overshadowed by the formidable apparatus of big government liberalism that FDR had erected.  

But Buckley knew that conservatism was the cornerstone and inclination of our political system, extant at the time of the founders, its principles and tenets enshrined and encoded in our founding documents.  The Declaration of Independence proclaimed each individual's God given "inalienable rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, conservative values that emphasized each person's autonomy, rights, and moral agency.  The principles of freedom and limited government were encoded into our Constitution, with its checks and balances, enumerated powers, coequal and competing branches of government, bill of rights, and Federalist system that devolved power to the states and away from a overbearing central government.  The emphasis from the very beginning in other words had always been toward individual freedom, liberty (and with it, personal responsibility), and smaller, more local government.

This governing creed had guided the nation throughout its history until a great Depression called into being FDR's New Deal, a patronage system in which the Federal government carved out constituencies through federal programs ushering in the modern era of entitlements and massive government, creating an ascendant liberal coalition, that by the fifties appeared all but inevitable.

That was until 1955, when Buckley launched his nascent National Review, the influential journal of opinion and flagship of the conservative movement, with the pledge that he and his merry band would "stand athwart history, yelling stop!" to the ever encroaching and expanding federal government. 

Buckley performed some necessary surgery by jettisoning extreme right wing cranks such as the John Birchers, the Ayn Rand clique, and others, a difficult process, but he wanted an intellectual movement that was as unimpeachable as it was ardent to ultimately forge a political movement that would challenge the dominant liberal ethos.

From Buckley and his fellow travelers at NR, a straight line can be drawn to Barry Goldwater who was crushed in 1964 to Ronald Reagan, who won in landslides in 1980 and 1984.  It led further to the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, that ushered in the first Republican held Congress in forty years. 

This incredible success has since been squandered during the presidency of George W. Bush who abandoned conservatism, but the movement prevails, its fundamental beliefs and principles alive and intact in any number of venues including a wide array of pundits, media outlets, think tanks, and, to a lesser or greater extent, the Republican party.  

Buckley created a tripod movement, forging a coalition of three distinct but essential parts, the traditionalists, economic conservatives, and national defense hawks.  He saw the abandonment of traditional values as a threat to the social and cultural integrity of the Republic, the massive expansion of government as a direct threat to the freedom and liberty of every individual, and, perhaps, most importantly, the existential threat of Soviet Communism to the entire free world.  In this final challenge, an indulgent West faced a toxic ideology and force that could undermine and ultimately overtake it.  The fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall were as much a personal victory for him as it was for anyone.

He was the original talk show host with Firing Line, and did it with inimitable verve and flair.  He ran for Mayor of NY bringing the well known Buckley charm and humor to that race.  When asked what he would do if he won, he famously responded that he would "demand a recount."  He was a bon vivant, a man of many talents (sailor, harpsichordist), a raconteur, conversationalist, and an intellectual powerhouse.  He churned out more than 4000 articles, dozens of books, and gave thousands of speeches.  And he met everyone, including ideologic adversaries with remarkably good cheer, as if to say that while politics were important, they were not everything, that finally life itself, the joy and appreciation of life and its challenges were greater. 

He also was a friend of Jews and emptied the ranks of the legitimate right, of extremists and anti-Semites, to ensure the movement he fathered would be credible and responsible.  He was a supporter of Israel and of Soviet Jewry and an enemy of bigots, so much so that the principal home of anti-Semitism today is no longer the extreme right but rather the far left. 

It is the left, after all, who bray endlessly about neo cons (code for Jews) and secret cabals of Jewish puppet masters controlling George Bush and his vassals, convincing them to invade Iraq and inventing the war on terror, even responsible for masterminding 9/11, who regularly demonize Israel, and often allign themselves with the rabidly anti-Semitic Jihadists in their campaign to destroy the Jewish state.  It is the right, on the other hand, where Israel finds its greatest support, a tribute, in no small measure, to the efforts of Mr. Buckley. 

He was grace and style personified, passionate in his beliefs yet polite and generous to all, including political opponents who called the arch conservative friend.  He was elegant and eloquent in both the written and spoken word, famous for his vocabulary and his erudition.  He was enormously productive and dynamic and found joy in any number of ways including a glass of champagne and a cigar.  He was also humorous and wry, sophisticated and charming and made conservatism not just respectable in a liberal universe but fashionable and fun.  He toppled the old conservative stereotype of the dour, greedy, tightwad, and replaced it with the lightning grin, flair, and wit of a vastly talented, flamboyant and occasionally mischievous public intellectual.  His was the most consequential of lives.  Through the vigorous pursuit of conservative ideas and ideals, he moved and influenced the nation more than most Presidents - and made the world a better place.

I remember reading my first copy of NR in 1992.  For the first time I found eloquent expression and intellectual grounding for my own emerging conservative beliefs.  I have never looked back and have not missed a copy since.  Like so many others across the country, WFB had had a great effect on me.

Although I never met him, I miss him and feel a personal loss. 

I wish I had gone on one of those NR cruises to enjoy champagne and a cigar with the great one, the father of modern conservatism, the man who rewrote history through his unmatched eloquence, brio, and intellect.  Anyone who cherishes freedom and liberty should mourn his loss.  RIP.  


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