William F. Buckley Jr., 82, Dies; Sesquipedalian Spark of Right
William F. Buckley Jr., who marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse, died on Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 82.
Highlights from the archives and reviews of Mr. Buckley’s books.
Mr. Buckley suffered from diabetes and emphysema肺氣腫, his son, Christopher, said, although the exact cause of death was not immediately known. He was found at his desk in the study of his home, his son said. “He might have been working on a column,” Christopher Buckley said.
William Buckley, with his winningly capricious personality, his use of ten-dollar words and a darting tongue writers loved to compare to an anteater’s, was the popular host of one of television’s longest-running programs, “Firing Line,” and founded and shepherded the influential conservative magazine National Review.
He also found time to write more than 50 books, varying from sailing odysseys to spy novels to dissertations on harpsichord fingering to celebrations 讚美 of his own dashing daily life. He edited at least five more.
In 2007, he published a history of the magazine called “Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription” and a political novel, “The Rake.” His personal memoir of Senator Barry M. Goldwater is scheduled to be published this spring, and he was working on a similar volume on President Ronald Reagan at his death.
The more than 4.5 million words of his 5,600 newspaper columns, titled “On the Right,” would fill 45 more medium-size books. His collected papers, which were donated to Yale, weigh seven tons.
Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal postwar America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Mr. Goldwater in 1964 and saw his dreams fulfilled when Mr. Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.
President Bush said Wednesday that Mr. Buckley “brought conservative thought into the political mainstream, and helped lay the intellectual foundation for America’s victory in the Cold War.”
To Mr. Buckley’s enormous delight, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian, termed him “the scourge of liberalism.”
In remarks at National Review’s 30th anniversary in 1985, President Reagan joked that he picked up his first issue of the magazine in a plain brown wrapper and still anxiously awaited his copy every two weeks — “without the wrapper.”
“You didn’t just part the Red Sea — you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism,” Mr. Reagan said.
“And then, as if that weren’t enough,” the president continued, “you gave the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.”
War on Liberal Order
The liberal primacy Mr. Buckley challenged had begun with the New Deal and so accelerated in the next generation that Lionel Trilling, one of America’s leading intellectuals, wrote in 1950: “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
Mr. Buckley declared war on this liberal order, beginning with his blistering assault on Yale, from which he graduated with honors in 1950, as a den of atheistic collectivism.
“All great biblical stories begin with Genesis,” George Will wrote in National Review in 1980. “And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.”
Mr. Buckley wove the tapestry of what became the new American conservatism from libertarian writers like Max Eastman, “free market” economists like Milton Friedman, traditionalist scholars like Russell Kirk and anti-Communist writers like Whittaker Chambers. He argued for a conservatism based on the national interest and a higher morality.
He found his most receptive audience in young conservatives who were energized by Barry Goldwater’s emergence at the Republican convention in 1960 as the right-wing alternative to Nixon. Some met in September 1960 at the Buckley family home in Sharon, Conn., to form Young Americans for Freedom. Their numbers — and influence — grew.
Nicholas Lemann observed in Washington Monthly in 1988 that during the Reagan administration “the 5,000 middle-level officials, journalists and policy intellectuals that it takes to run a government” were “deeply influenced by Buckley’s example.” He suggested that neither moderate Washington insiders nor “Ed Meese-style provincial conservatives” could have pulled off the Reagan tax cut and other policy transformations.
Speaking of the true believers, Mr. Lemann continued, “Some of these people had been personally groomed by Buckley, and most of the rest saw him as a role model.”
Mr. Buckley rose to prominence with a generation of talented writers fascinated by political themes, people with names like Mailer, Capote, Vidal, Styron and Baldwin. Like the others, he was a magnet for controversy. Even people on the right — from members of the John Birch Society to disciples of the author Ayn Rand to George Wallace to moderate Republicans — frequently pounced on him.
People of many political stripes came to see his life as something of an art form — from racing through city streets on a motorcycle to a quixotic campaign for mayor of New York in 1965 to voicing startling opinions like favoring the decriminalization of marijuana. He was often described as liberals’ favorite conservative, particularly after suavely playing host to an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” on public television in 1982.
Norman Mailer may indeed have dismissed Mr. Buckley as a “second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row,” but he could not help admiring his stage presence.
“No other act can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep school kid next door and the snows of yesteryear,” Mr. Mailer said in an interview with Harper’s Magazine in 1967.
Mr. Buckley’s vocabulary, sparkling with phrases from distant eras and described in newspaper and magazine profiles as sesquipedalian (characterized by the use of long words), became the stuff of legend. Less kind commentators preferred the adjective “pleonastic” (using more words than necessary).
And, inescapably, there was that aurora of pure mischief. In 1985, David Remnick, writing in The Washington Post, said, “He has the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”
William Francis Buckley was born in Manhattan on Nov. 24, 1925, the sixth of the 10 children of Aloise Steiner Buckley and William Frank Buckley. His parents had intended to name him after his father, but the priest who christened him insisted on a saint’s name, so Francis was chosen.
When the younger William Buckley was 5, he asked to change his middle name to Frank and his parents agreed. At that point, he became William F. Buckley Jr.
The elder Mr. Buckley made a small fortune in the oil fields of Mexico and Venezuela and educated his children with personal tutors at Great Elm, the family estate in Sharon, Conn. They also attended exclusive Roman Catholic schools in England and France.
Family’s Deep Catholicism
Young William absorbed his family’s conservatism along with its deep Roman Catholicism. At 14, he followed his brothers to the Millbrook School, a preparatory school 15 miles across the New York line from Sharon.
In his spare time at Millbrook, young Bill typed schoolmates’ papers for them, charging $1 a paper, with a 25-cent surcharge for correcting the grammar.
He graduated from Millbrook in 1943, then spent a half a year at the University of Mexico studying Spanish, which had been his first language. He served in the Army from 1944 to 1946 and managed to make second lieutenant after first putting colleagues off with his mannerisms.
In his 1988 book, “William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives,” John B. Judis quoted Mr. Buckley’s sister Patricia as saying that the Army experience changed Mr. Buckley. “He got to understand people more,” she said.
Mr. Buckley then entered Yale, where he studied political science, economics and history; established himself as a fearsome debater; was elected chairman of The Yale Daily News; and joined Skull and Bones, the university’s most prestigious secret society.
As a senior, he was given the honor of delivering the speech for Yale’s Alumni Day celebration, but was replaced after Yale’s administration objected to his strong attacks on the university. He responded by writing his critique in the book that brought him to national attention, in part because he gave the publisher, Regnery, $10,000 to advertise it.
Published in 1951, “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom,’ ” charged the powers at Yale with having an atheistic and collectivist bent and called for the firing of faculty members who advocated values out of line with what he saw as Yale’s traditional values.
After a year in the Central Intelligence Agency in Mexico City (his case officer was E. Howard Hunt, who went on to participate in the Watergate break-in), Mr. Buckley went to work for the American Mercury magazine, but resigned to write on his own.
Over the next few years, Mr. Buckley worked as a freelance writer and lecturer and wrote a second book with his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell. Published in 1954, “McCarthy and His Enemies” was a sturdy defense of the senator from Wisconsin, who was then at the height of his campaign against communists, liberals and the Democratic Party. The book made the New York Times best-seller list.
In 1955, Mr. Buckley started National Review as a voice for “the disciples of truth, who defend the organic moral order,” with a $100,000 gift from his father and $290,000 from outside donors. The first issue, which came out in November, claimed the publication “stands athwart history yelling Stop.”
It proved it by lining up squarely behind Southern segregationists, saying that Southern whites had the right to impose their ideas on blacks who were as yet culturally and politically inferior to them. After some conservatives objected, Mr. Buckley suggested instead that both uneducated whites and blacks should be denied the vote.
Mr. Buckley did not accord automatic support to Republicans. For President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom National Review was founded in part to oppose, the magazine ultimately managed only a memorably tepid endorsement: “We prefer Ike.”
Circulation increased from 16,000 in 1957 to 70,000 at the time of Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, to 115,000 in 1972. It is now 166,000. The magazine has always had to be subsidized by readers’ donations, supplemented by Mr. Buckley’s lecturing fees.
Along with offering a forum to big-gun conservatives like Russell Kirk, James Burnham and Robert Nisbet, National Review cultivated the career of several younger writers, including Garry Wills, Joan Didion and John Leonard, who would shake off the conservative attachment and go their leftward ways.
National Review also helped define the conservative movement by isolating cranks from Mr. Buckley’s chosen mainstream.
“Bill was responsible for rejecting the John Birch Society and the other kooks who passed off anti-Semitism or some such as conservatism,” Hugh Kenner, a biographer of Ezra Pound and a frequent contributor to National Review, told The Washington Post. “Without Bill — if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else — without him, there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country.”
Mr. Buckley’s personal visibility was magnified by his “Firing Line” program, which ran from 1966 to 1999. First carried on WOR-TV and then on public television, it became the longest-running program with a single host — beating out Johnny Carson by three years. He taped 1,504 programs, including debates on scores of topics like “Resolved: The women’s movement has been disastrous.”
There were exchanges on foreign policy with Norman Thomas, feminism with Germaine Greer, and race relations with James Baldwin. Not a few viewers thought Mr. Buckley’s toothy grin before he scored a point resembled nothing so much as a switchblade.
To the New York City politician Mark Green, he purred: “You’ve been on the show close to 100 times over the years. Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything yet?”
At age 50, Mr. Buckley crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his sailboat and became a novelist. Eleven of his novels are spy tales starring Blackford Oakes, who fights for the American way and beds the Queen of England in the first book.
Others of his books included a historical novel with Elvis Presley as a significant character, another about the Nuremberg trials, a reasoned critique of anti-Semitism and journals that more than succeeded in dramatizing a life of taste and wealth — his own.
Mr. Buckley’s spirit of fun was apparent in his 1965 campaign for mayor of New York on the ticket of the Conservative Party. When asked what he would do if he won, he answered, “Demand a recount.” He got 13.4 percent of the vote.
In retrospect, the mayoral campaign came to be seen as the beginning of the Republican Party’s successful courtship of working-class whites who later became “Reagan Democrats.”
Unlike his brother James, who served as a United States senator from New York, Mr. Buckley generally avoided official government posts. He did serve from 1969 to 1972 as a presidential appointee to the National Advisory Commission on Information and as a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations in 1973.
In his last years, as honors like the Presidential Medal of Freedom came his way, Mr. Buckley gradually loosened his grip on his intellectual empire. In 1998, he ended his frenetic schedule of public speeches, about 70 a year over 40 years, he once estimated. In 1999, he stopped “Firing Line,” and in 2004, he relinquished his voting stock in National Review. He wrote his last spy novel (the 11th in his series), sold his sailboat and stopped playing the harpsichord publicly.
But he began a new historical novel and kept up his columns, including one on the “bewitching power” of “The Sopranos” television series. He commanded wide attention by criticizing the Iraq war as a failure.
On April 15, 2007, his wife, the former Patricia Aldyen Austin Taylor, died. Mr. and Mrs. Buckley called each other “Ducky.”
He is survived by his son, Christopher, of Washington; his sisters, Priscilla L. Buckley of Sharon, Conn., Patricia Buckley Bozell of Washington, and Carol Buckley of Columbia, S.C.; his brothers, James L., of Sharon, and F. Reid, of Camden, S.C.; a granddaughter; and a grandson.
In the end it was Mr. Buckley’s graceful, often self-deprecating wit that endeared him to others. In his spy novel “Who’s on First,” he described the possible impact of his National Review through his character Boris Bolgin.
“ ‘Do you ever read the National Review, Jozsef?’ asks Boris Bolgin, the chief of KGB counter intelligence for Western Europe. ‘It is edited by this young bourgeois fanatic.’ ”
Remembering the Mentor
When I was in college, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a book called “Overdrive” in which he described his glamorous lifestyle. Since I was young and a smart-aleck, I wrote a parody of it for the school paper.
“Buckley spent most of his infancy working on his memoirs,” I wrote in my faux-biography. “By the time he had learned to talk, he had finished three volumes: ‘The World Before Buckley,’ which traced the history of the world prior to his conception; ‘The Seeds of Utopia,’ which outlined his effect on world events during the nine months of his gestation; and ‘The Glorious Dawn,’ which described the profound ramifications of his birth on the social order.”
The piece went on in this way. I noted that his ability to turn water into wine added to his popularity at prep school. I described his college memoirs: “God and Me at Yale,” “God and Me at Home” and “God and Me at the Movies.” I recounted that after college he had founded two magazines, one called The National Buckley and the other called The Buckley Review, which merged to form The Buckley Buckley.
I wrote that his hobbies included extended bouts of name-dropping and going into rooms to make everyone else feel inferior.
Buckley came to the University of Chicago, delivered a lecture and said: “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I’d like to offer you a job.”
That was the big break of my professional life. A few years later, I went to National Review and joined the hundreds of others who have been Buckley protégés.
I don’t know if I can communicate the grandeur of his life or how overwhelming it was to be admitted into it. Buckley was not only a giant celebrity, he lived in a manner of the haut monde. To enter Buckley’s world was to enter the world of yachts, limousines, finger bowls at dinner, celebrities like David Niven and tales of skiing at Gstaad.
Buckley’s greatest talent was friendship. The historian George Nash once postulated that he wrote more personal letters than any other American, and that is entirely believable. He showered affection on his friends, and he had an endless stream of them, old and young. He took me sailing, invited me to concerts and included me at dinners with the great and the good.
He asked my opinion about things, as he did with all his young associates, and he worked hard on polishing my writing. My short editorials would come back covered with his red ink, and if I’d written one especially badly there might be an exasperated comment, “Come on, David!”
His second great talent was leadership. As a young man, he had corralled the famously disputatious band of elders who made up the editorial board of National Review. He changed the personality of modern conservatism, created a national movement and expelled the crackpots from it.
He led through charisma and merit. He was capable of intellectual pyrotechnics none of us could match. But he also exemplified a delicious way of living.
Magazines are aspirational. National Review’s readers no doubt shared a hatred for Communism, but many of them simply wanted to be like Buckley. He had a Tory gratitude for the pleasures of life: for music, conversation, technology and adventure.
Days at the magazine were filled with rituals. And through all the fun, I don’t recall him talking about politics much. He talked about literature, history, theology, philosophy and the charms of the peculiar people he had known. I don’t recall politicians at his home, but I do recall literary critics like Anatole Broyard and social thinkers like James Burnham, even after his stroke.
Buckley contained all the intellectual tensions of conservatism, the pessimism of Albert Jay Nock and Whittaker Chambers, as well as the optimism of Ronald Reagan. He loved liberty and felt it must be constrained by the invisible bonds of the transcendent order.
One night we were at his home, and his wife, Pat, at the height of her glamour, swept in from an evening on the town and took one look at the little group of us debating some point. You could feel her inner thought: “Why does he spend his time with those people?” But Buckley loved ideas, swept us along as his companions, and sent us out into the world.
And years later, I asked if he’d ever reached a moment of contentment. He’d changed history and accomplished all that any man could be expected to accomplish. After you’ve done all that, I asked, do you feel peace? Can you kick back and relax?
He looked at me with a confused expression. He had no idea what I could possibly be talking about.