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William F. Buckley, Jr. -- R.I.P

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 3, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr.To get an idea of how big a void the death of William F. Buckley, Jr. has left in the conservative movement, just read his obituaries. Buckley was himself one of the finest obituarists in the business, having written hundreds of short tributes to recently departed world leaders, renowned celebrities, and close friends.

The outpouring of affectionate Buckley remembrances has been something to behold, since so many of them are moving, heartfelt, and eloquent. But few of them had Buckley's elegant touch. And none of those who came forward to memorialize him had his stature on the right. A handful came close -- George Will, John O'Sullivan, the editors of National Review's companion conservative magazines -- but none were quite like WFB. Ronald Reagan left us in 2004. Now another great lion of modern American conservatism is gone.

Among conservatives, William F. Buckley was a giant. The founder of National Review, the author of countless books, columns, and magazine articles, the friend to presidents, companion to stars, the host of Firing Line, and the man who made even the liberal establishment concede "conservative intellectual" was no oxymoron. But to many of the young friends whose careers he shaped, he was just Bill. That goes not just for people who have already ascended to the New York Times op-ed page or editorships at prestigious national magazines. He was Bill to many promising writers who are still just starting out.

Toward the end of Buckley's life, a twentysomething friend of mine began corresponding with the writer and bon vivant. He got an audience with Buckley, beginning their meeting by peppering the old man with questions about James Burnham. Understanding the difference between permanent things and dwelling in the past, Buckley turned the conversation to my friend's girlfriend instead. Buckley's advice? Stop dawdling and marry the girl, already.

Another friend recounted intense discussions Buckley had with him about his work, as well as wine-soaked dinners in which he got to know conservatism's first family better. The sheer number of reminiscences along these lines, where Buckley was giving of his own time and resources to talented but unknown aspiring writers even as he battled old age and infirmities, is a testament to the man. Few people of his stature have invested so much of themselves in the future of the conservative movement, or in the careers of people who could only offer him friendship in return.

While I had the privilege hearing him lecture toward the end of his public speaking career, I mostly felt his influence from afar, like most conservatives did. It had a significant impact nonetheless. As a child, I furtively listened to Firing Line when I was supposed to be sleeping or doing homework. I dashed off notes to National Review, many of which were patiently answered, some by the man himself. I devoured his books and anthologies of old syndicated columns, declining to return a copy of The Governor Listeth to my high school's library until they threatened to withhold my diploma.

My intense study of Buckley and the writers he introduced to me continued in college, where, in my moments free of libation, I practically majored in back issues of National Review. Through Buckley, I came to Hayek and Mises; through his magazine,  Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, and Frank Meyer. By much the same means, the country came to discover Barry Goldwater and then Reagan.

One could also find the clever lines and subtly devastating putdowns. Asked why Bobby Kennedy wouldn't appear on Firing Line, Buckley replied, "Why does baloney avoid the grinder?" "I would like to take you seriously," he told one debate opponent, "but to do so would affront your intelligence. He explained that he occasionally wrote for outlets like Playboy because it was the only place he could reach his young son. And sometimes he could be made mad enough to say things so bluntly you didn't need a highfalutin vocabulary to understand, such as when he threatened Gore Vidal, "I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."

Buckley wasn't perfect. As I progressed in my reading, I came upon thinkers and magazines on the right that were critical of the direction in which he took the conservative movement. It nevertheless seems indisputable that Buckley left an indelible mark not just on conservatism, but his country. Much of that impact was positive.

It would hardly hurt the conservative movement Buckley left behind if his successors were anywhere nearly as urbane, witty, independent, and skeptical of political authorities with large ambitions. Buckley was neither a jaded dissident who jeered from the sidelines or a simple Republican booster seeking proximity to power, like too many of those left squabbling over his ideological inheritance.

For those who admired him, it is hard to imagine Buckley being gone. Yet even though he worked tirelessly to the end, dying at his desk, he was ready to be reunited with his wife, who died last year. The faith that says such reunions are possible was summed up well in an interview Buckley gave to Playboy, appropriately enough, in March 1970.

Playboy asked, "Don't most dogmas, theological as well as ideological, crumble sooner or later?" Buckley replied, "Most, but not all." The interviewer was undeterred. How could he be so sure?

Buckley answered, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." ESR

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator and a contributing editor to Enter Stage Right.

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