Pundit shaped the new conservatism
William F. Buckley Jr., the columnist, novelist, television talk show host and tireless intellectual who founded the modern conservative movement and was its articulate voice for nearly six decades, died Wednesday. He was 82.
Buckley, who had been ill with emphysema, died while at work in his study in Stamford, Conn., according to Richard Lowry, the editor of National Review, the magazine Buckley founded in 1955.
An urbane pundit with a lacerating wit, Buckley was the intellectual heart of American political conservatism in the 1960s and ‘70s. His ardent friends and admirers came to include a California governor, Ronald Reagan, who sought Buckley’s counsel frequently during his campaign and presidency, calling him “perhaps the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era.” Buckley also inspired generations of conservatives, who now fill think tanks and write for National Review, the Weekly Standard and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s not lonely the way it was 45 years ago,” Buckley said in an interview with The Times a few years ago, “when there was really nothing, certainly no journal of opinion on conservative thought. There are tons of people here now.”
“Without Bill, there’d be no conservatism as we know it today,” said Lowry. “One of his earliest achievements was to forge this coalition of social conservatives, national security hawks and economic libertarians. That became the conservative coalition, and there would not be one today without it.”
Buckley was a fierce debater who loved trading savagely lyrical put-downs with his political opponents. But, unlike the conservative pundits who drive talk radio today, he had many personal friends and admirers among his public foes, including such luminaries as the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith and late writer Norman Mailer. Some of his political opponents, though, had trouble reconciling the two Buckleys -- the irresistibly charming raconteur and the talk show host who drew exquisite rhetorical nooses around the necks of his opponents. “You can’t stay mad at a guy who’s witty, spontaneous and likes good liquor,” Mailer once said.
During his life, Buckley was a prodigious speaker and writer with an extensive vocabulary of multisyllabic words that he wasn’t afraid to use and that invited much good-natured ribbing from friend and foe. Samuel Vaughan, his editor, once said that Buckley’s use of language elicits “both exasperation and admiration.”
He gave thousands of speeches across the country, using the proceeds to keep his beloved National Review afloat. And he wrote or co-wrote more than 50 books, often during his winter vacation near Gstaad, Switzerland. The eclectic list includes “Cruising Speed,” a documentary of a week in his life; lyrical memoirs of sailing journeys; and the Blackford Oakes series of spy novels.
Writing and language were always his passion, and he grew up in a house where erudition was prized. He was born in New York City on Nov. 24, 1925, the sixth of 10 children of William Frank Buckley Sr., known as Will, and Aloise Steiner.
His father, an oilman, saw to it that the Buckley children learned French and Spanish from nannies and sojourns abroad, and as a youngster Bill attended schools in Paris and London.
Bill, as he was known his whole life, excelled at academics and languages, and he was a talented pianist. He quickly became a favorite of his father’s, and he displayed his intellectual gifts early around the dinner table. “Bill was . . . the first to get the right answer, the first to fire back a witty riposte,” wrote John B. Judis, author of the 1988 biography, “William F. Buckley Jr., Patron Saint of the Conservatives.” “By the time he was a teenager, Bill was dominating the dinner-table discussion, displaying the kind of performing intellect that his father loved.”
Buckley briefly attended the University of Mexico and quit during World War II to join the U.S. Army, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. After the war, he enrolled at Yale, where he was chairman of the Yale Daily News and a member of the secret Skull and Bones society.
During his last semester at Yale, Buckley was invited to be student speaker at the Alumni Day fundraiser, an invitation that became a defining moment in the young man’s life.
The traditional role of the student speaker was to deliver a talk that would personify the university’s brilliant student body. Flouting convention, though, Buckley wrote a speech that condemned Yale for failing as an “educational leader” and called upon the school to require its faculty to foster active Christianity and free enterprise and to discipline professors who advocated communism and socialism. When school administrators got an early look at the speech, they asked Buckley to tone it down. He refused and was removed as speaker.
The attempt to silence him made Buckley determined to write a book about his experiences at Yale, and the result was a scathing indictment of his alma mater, “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom.” The book, which became a national bestseller, was greeted with hostility by Yale alumni and liberals and showered with praise by conservatives.
At the time of the book’s publication, in 1951, Buckley had begun what he thought would be a career in the CIA. He had married Patricia Taylor, a friend of his sister’s, and the couple had moved to Mexico City, where Buckley was an undercover agent, reporting on pro-communist activity in student groups. His supervisor was E. Howard Hunt, the CIA station chief in Mexico who years later helped engineer the Watergate burglary that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
While he was in Mexico, Buckley’s book prompted an avalanche of speaking invitations, and right-wing publications invited Buckley to become their editor. Feeling a need to personally join the debate over his book, he decided to leave the CIA after less than a year in the job.
Buckley and his wife, then pregnant with their only child, Christopher, moved back to the United States. His return coincided with a crisis of conscience among conservative intellectuals over Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who was leading a crusade against communists in government. Many agreed with liberals who thought McCarthy a grandstander and opportunist, but they shared his fears of communism.
Buckley identified with McCarthy, who like Buckley was a Catholic with a deep hatred for communism. And although he regretted the damage McCarthy’s efforts might do to the reputations of innocent Americans, Buckley thought that paled in comparison to the damage and potential damage of communism, according to Judis, Buckley’s biographer.
After McCarthy was discredited and censured by the Senate in 1954, the political right was in disarray. It was then that Buckley launched what Judis calls “the boldest political and intellectual venture of his life.” That venture was the magazine National Review, which published its first issue in New York City in 1955. Buckley, its editor, was 29 years old.
National Review, which has been published continuously for more than half a century, became Buckley’s enduring legacy. He kept it afloat with his speaking fees and annual fundraisers and, today, it has a healthy circulation of 166,000 and an endowment that will keep it alive for years. “We’ll be around long after you’ve written my obituary,” Buckley told The Times in 2001.
Asked in that interview about his legacy, Buckley replied: “I founded a magazine that has published 20 million words that wouldn’t have been published. That contributed to the patrimony. That’s the only legacy I can think of, except for my very, very bright son.” He was referring to Christopher Buckley, a writer and political satirist, who is the author of “Thank You for Smoking,” among other novels.
In the early 1960s, Buckley’s magazine began to do more than criticize its liberal foes; it created a new movement, publicly breaking with right-wing stalwarts such as the John Birch Society, Southern segregationists and the anti-Semitic fringe. In the eyes of many conservatives at the time, Buckley seemed to have violated a cardinal rule of politics: Never go after your own people. But it worked.
“Buckley lost contributors and subscriptions,” Judis said. “But it was a cleansing act, and it made the conservatives a mainstream political movement.”
The decision to break with the racist right created differences with many supporters, including Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator and Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1964 who was a devotee of National Review. Buckley was unable to persuade Goldwater to disassociate himself from the John Birchers and, although Buckley supported Goldwater in his losing bid against President Johnson, he felt the senator was not particularly qualified and didn’t have his heart in the campaign, according to Judis.
Buckley’s celebrity grew during the 1960s, when debates among public intellectuals filled speaking halls. Buckley squared off against leading liberals of the day, including Mailer, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal. A 1962 debate in Chicago between Buckley and Mailer drew a capacity crowd of 3,600 spectators paying the then-princely sum of $2.50 apiece -- and the debate was featured on the cover of Playboy magazine in a two-part series a few months later.
But for all his combativeness, Buckley had a genius for friendship, and he became friends with Mailer and others of his debating opponents. Dinner parties at the Buckleys’ Upper East Side home in Manhattan were as likely to include liberals as conservatives.
Buckley was part of a generation of public intellectuals and writers who captured the nation’s attention after World War II. These philosopher kings were not pundits as we know them today but rather men of letters whose themes and interests were political.
What set Buckley apart from his peers, though, was his fascination with the cultural currents of America. Though a champion of the right, he had a tolerant, even inquisitive attitude toward the counterculture. During the 1960s, he could been seen riding a motorcycle through the streets of New York, his fashionably long hair blowing in the wind. He printed favorable articles on the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead in National Review, to the dismay of his ideological soul mates.
His libertarian instincts led him, in 1972, to come out for decriminalizing marijuana, which he boldly announced he had sampled while on a sail into international waters, beyond the jurisdiction of American law. And, later, he advocated relaxing drug laws, arguing that the damage done by prosecuting such laws exceeded the damage that would be done by relaxing them. Acknowledging that his position was opposed by most conservatives, he said: “I have sort of grandfather privileges on the subject.”
In 1965, Buckley made his sole foray into elective politics when he ran for New York mayor as the candidate of the newly formed Conservative Party. His entry in the race was a bit of a fluke. He had written a column for National Review outlining a plan to defeat the liberal candidate, John Lindsay, and, as a gag, the magazine ran a teaser headline on its cover, Buckley for Mayor. Conservative Party leaders contacted him and persuaded him to run.
Buckley didn’t expect to win -- when asked what’d he do if he won, he famously declared: “I’d demand a recount.” But he finished third with 13% of the vote. (Later, Buckley turned away Conservative Party pressure to run for the U.S. Senate. His brother, James, ran as the party’s nominee instead, winning one term in 1972.)
In 1966, Buckley’s celebrity status was heightened by the launch of the television show “Firing Line,” which ran for the next 33 years. Buckley was host of the show, which featured a debate -- often heated -- between himself and a guest. The show, which grew in syndication, made Buckley the man liberals loved to hate. “I think you are finally going to displace me as the most hated man in America,” Mailer wrote Buckley around that time. “And of course the position is bearable only if one is No. 1.”
But the show, which won an Emmy in 1968, was as popular with liberals as it was with conservatives. At its peak, no serious public figure, from heads of state to Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, could afford to pass up an invitation to do battle with Buckley.
Years later, Frederick C. Klein, writing in the Wall Street Journal, explained the show’s appeal this way: The spectacle of Buckley “spearing a foe . . . holds much the same fascination as the sight of a cat stalking a bird. If you sympathize with the bird, you can still find it possible to admire the grace and ferocity of its pursuer.”
The publication of “Cruising Speed: A Documentary” in 1971 contributed to a softening of Buckley’s attack-dog image. The book was organized as a diary of a week in Buckley’s life, but it was also a portrait of the man most of his friends knew -- a man with the ear of presidents, to be sure, but also a mentor to scores of students, a writer who personally answered mail from critics as well as fans, a lover of classical music and a bon vivant.
By the time he turned 50, in 1975, Buckley was one of the 20th century’s best-known intellectuals, a Renaissance man of the right. It was then that he added two pursuits to his repertoire. He developed a passion for the harpsichord after his younger brother sent him one as a gift, though he lamented later in life that his one regret was that he wasn’t a more accomplished player. And he became a novelist, a move that was more successful.
As Buckley told it, he was pressured by his editor, Sam Vaughan, into attempting a novel. At lunch, Vaughan asked Buckley what he was reading. “I said I was reading a terrific book, ‘The Day of the Jackal.’ ‘In fact, I resent being here because I could be reading that book,’ ” Buckley recalled. “So Sam said, ‘Why don’t you write a novel?’ And I said, ‘Sam, why don’t you write a trumpet concerto?’ ”
But a contract materialized the next day, and Buckley agreed to try it on one condition: He’d write 100 pages for one-third of the advance. “I don’t know whether I can write a novel, but I don’t intend to find out on my time. If you don’t like it, I’ll keep the third and if you do like it, you’re committed to the other two-thirds. That was ‘Saving the Queen.’ ”
“Saving the Queen” was a bestseller, the first of 10 novels featuring the dashing CIA agent Blackford Oakes. (It also included Buckley’s first sex scene, with Oakes taking a young Queen of England to bed.)
One of the most important political relationships of Buckley’s life was his friendship with Reagan. The two had met in 1960, when Reagan was chairman of Democrats for Nixon in California, and National Review backed Reagan’s run for governor in 1966. Reagan was in awe of Buckley’s intellect and a devout reader of National Review and Buckley’s column.
Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 was a seminal moment for the conservative movement and the man who had founded it a quarter-century earlier. Buckley used his column to advise and, with rare exception, defend Reagan for most of the next eight years. Reagan’s last two years were tarnished by the Iran Contra scandal, in which Reagan aides diverted Iranian arms sales to buy weapons for the Contras fighting Communist rule in Nicaragua. Buckley blamed Reagan’s subordinates, but he lamented what he saw as a lost opportunity to expand Reagan’s conservatism.
Buckley began paring down his prodigiously busy schedule in 1999, with the 1,429th -- and last -- episode of “Firing Line” and his last public speech. After that, he devoted himself to writing.
He spent a day or two a week in his Upper East Side apartment, a two-floor flat once owned by the late U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. He would regularly invite editors of National Review and other guests for dinner there, and he’d spend the rest of each week at the 15-room Mediterranean-style villa in Connecticut where he died. He also spent several weeks sailing each summer.
The death of his wife, Pat, at age 80 last April, was a devastating blow, friends said, and he was slowed as well by battles with pneumonia and emphysema.
But he continued to write books as well as his syndicated column. He had just finished a book on Goldwater and planned a book of personal reminiscences of Reagan. And he remained engaged in his passion for personal correspondence, which he regarded as a sacred duty.
“I get mad at my friend [book critic] John Leonard because he never answers a letter. Never, ever, ever,” Buckley said in 2001. “I can’t imagine not replying to mail.”
In addition to his son, Buckley’s survivors include his brother James and two grandchildren.