Friday, February 29, 2008

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, author, television host, and a founder of the modern American conservative movement, passed away Wednesday at age 82.

I'm old enough to remember the days where nearly every major American city had at least two newspapers; usually one was liberal and the other one was conservative. In the St. Louis area, you had the liberal Post-Dispatch, balanced by the conservative views of the Globe-Democrat. By paying attention to both, one could get a pretty good idea of what went on in the world, even if you read almost nothing else. It was through the editorial page of the Globe that I first got to know the ideas of William F. Buckley. When I was older, I would also from time to time watch Firing Line, where Buckley would slouch in his chair on Sunday afternoons, and sporting a most impressive vocabulary, he would rigorously interview the leading thinkers and newsmakers of the day, whether they were on the right or the left.

For over 50 years Buckley gave voice to the American right. He came along at a time when conservatism was at a low ebb, especially in academia, and the public held a more favorable view of liberal ideas due to the shared experiences of the New Deal and World War II. Beginning in 1951 with God And Man At Yale, his attack on campus liberalism, he would go on to author dozens of books critical of liberal thought and government activism, while championing religion, tradition, and unfettered capitalism. He wielded his greatest influence as the founder of National Review, which quickly gained status as America's preeminent journal of conservative opinion. In the magazine's inaugural issue, Buckley issued a statement of purpose: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."

Buckley's influence would also spread as the host of Firing Line, which ran from 1966 to 1999. During the program's run, nearly every influential political and intellectual figure of the day would come to spar with the host. Buckley made numerous other TV appearances during the period, including his notorious dust-up with Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic convention. He also made a run for mayor of New York City in 1965; although he lost badly, he sparkled in debates and was able to use his campaign to bring further visibility to the conservative cause.

Buckley also briefly worked for the CIA in the 50's; he found the job boring. He put some of this experience to work in later years as an author of spy novels. He owned a yacht, enjoyed fine dining and fine living, and was totally unapologetic about his lifestyle of wealth and privilege.

I rarely agreed with Buckley, but I don't think he was the monster some have made him out to be, either. The biggest black mark against his name was his unrepentant support of segregation that was often on display in the early years of National Review, and that he never quite repudiated. To his credit, he stood up to right-wing extremists like the John Birch Society. He supported the decriminalization of marijuana, and came to view George W. Bush's Iraq War as a mistake. Although a friend and admirer of Ronald Reagan, he was often at odds with the populist strain of conservatism which became ascendant in the 80's as a result of the Gipper's influence. Buckley was a royalist at heart; many of his writings showed his skepticism of democracy, if not outright contempt at times. Had Buckley been in charge of the Republican Party, they would have been more formidable intellectually, but they wouldn't have won near as many elections, as the GOP became politically dominant in the 80's and 90's in large part by appealing to those very fringe elements that Buckley wished to distance himself from. Buckley's snobbery was irritating, but his honesty was a welcome quality currently in short supply with the current crop of conservative pundits.

National Review offers a series of glowing tributes to its founder. Rick Perlstein has an excellent post up showing how Buckley could be personable and gracious even with those he disagreed with. Blue Girl got to meet Buckley when he spoke at Wichita State, and she offers her personal recollections. It was also said of Buckley that he was a Catholic above all else, and here he offers some reflections on his faith.

I'm also not going to miss a chance to work in Noam Chomsky if I can help it; here's a clip of Buckley debating Chomsky in 1969. Rush Limbaugh would jump from the top of the Empire State Building before engaging a leftist of Chomsky's stature in honest debate.