It is impossible to begin to sum up the life of someone as articulate, imaginative, capricious and influential as William F. Buckley, Jr. Every conservative pundit in the old or new media owes him an incalculable debt and is to some degree attempting to imitate him. He died on Wednesday at his home in Connecticut, and I doubt that any of the many aspirants to his throne of right-leaning wit and wisdom are qualified to fill his shoes.
Buckley is credited with single-handedly reviving conservatism and breaking the political dominance of socialistic liberalism emerging from the Roosevelt era, though his writing and speaking and through his work as publisher of the enormously influential magazine National Review for over 50 years. Buckley authored more than 5600 articles and dozens of books, including a number of novels. He hosted the television show Firing Line for more than 30 years and it became the model for the talking-head style interview and debate shows which now dominate Sunday mornings and cable news.
Buckley was the epitome of traditional Republicanism with his unapologetic elitism, reverence for traditional values, libertarian views on civil rights and unwavering opposition to every aspect of socialism and communism. He also opposed those who perverted the basic values of conservatism, excoriating reactionaries, bigots and theocrats with as much vehemence as he opposed those who subverted liberalism to the service of collectivism.
Buckley championed individualism and was brilliant in his own individuality. He sometimes undermined his own serious points with his insidious and self-mocking humor, and while he remained true to his values they eventually put him at odds with the conservative movement which he had empowered. He was at his height of influence with his support and encouragement of the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, a campaign which might never have gotten as far as it did without the involvement of young conservatives inspired by Buckley. It was that campaign and Buckley’s writing which inspired the resurgence of conservative leadership in the Reagan era.
Although every conservative leader for the last 50 years admired Buckley, he was never willing to compromise his principles enough to be anything but a political outsider, often finding himself criticizing conservatives more than liberals and advocating positions which few others on the right were brave enough to embrace. He supported marijuana legalization and opposed the War in Iraq. He despised Neocons and other interventionists, rejected the legislating of morality and consistently supported individual liberty. He understood that you could have great faith without needing to impose your beliefs on others. He always opposed big government, statism and excessive taxation. He was a great and consistent voice for reason over fanaticism.
Before we can even really understand how much we are going to miss Buckley as the conscience of conservatism, his legacy is being torn apart by vultures seeking to embolden their dull plumage with some of his bright feathers. National Review has already gone off the rails and the Republican party is deeply split between a number of largely misguided factions with some very strange ideas of conservatism.
The sad truth is that although Buckley inspired the conservative revival and is consistently praised by contemporary conservatives, they really aren’t following in his footsteps. They have lost sight of the principles which he believed in. When Mona Charen concluded her reminiscence of Buckley by placing him in the same company as arch-neocon Irving Kristol, she demonstrated how little she and other pseudoconservatives actually understood Buckley and his ideas. If Buckley hadn’t been enshrined as the ‘father of modern conservatism’ and was being judged solely on his beliefs, most of these so-called conservatives would condemn him as a traitor to the movement.
With Buckley gone, the right has lost more than just a charming and witty icon. It has lost one of its most consistent voices of pure conservatism. It has lost its rudder and is too likely to be steered off course by the pygmies left at the helm, most of whom are secretly happy they no longer have Bill Buckley looking over their shoulder and making cutting remarks.
For more on Buckley see:
Various reminiscences at National Review.
Douglas Martin in the New York Times.
Mon Charen in the Washington Post.
Henry Allen in the Washington Post.
Paul Mulshine with a look at how conservatism as strayed from Buckley’s ideals on NJ.com.
A nice summeary of comments from different sources at the Wall Street Journal
Excellent clip from Firing Line of Buckley and Gore Vidal discussing the presidency. Very relevant to the current election.