William F. Buckley Jr: obituary
Commentator who kick-started the modern American conservative movement and was long its most eloquent advocate
William F. Buckley was a progenitor, and the best-known proponent, of modern American conservatism. He founded and edited National Review, America's foremost conservative journal; his column, On the Right, appeared in hundreds of newspapers; his weekly television programme, Firing Line, was shown from coast to coast. Handsome and witty, he was a tireless debater and lecturer.
He wrote at least one book a year - lively political essays, fragments of autobiography, memoirs of sailing and travelling, and then a series of thrillers. His was the urbane voice which accompanied the progress of thoroughgoing conservatism from the political wilderness to the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House; the legacy of his ideas continues to exert a powerful influence over the Administration of George W. Bush.
William F. Buckley Jr (as he always styled himself) was born in 1925, in New York, the sixth child of William Frank and Aloise Buckley. His father, a Texan of Irish descent, had made a considerable fortune from Mexican and Venezuelan oil. His mother came from an old New Orleans family.
Their natural conservatism had been vigorously reinforced when in 1921 Buckley Sr was expelled from Mexico and his property seized by a revolutionary left-wing government. However, he was by no means an establishment character, which, Buckley Jr afterwards mused, might account for the fact that none of his ten children showed any inclination to rebel against their father's political views or staunch Roman Catholicism. One of Buckley Jr's liberal opponents referred to the Buckleys as “kind of sick Kennedys”, an analogy accepted with characteristic good humour. ”Our family plays touch football too,“ said Buckley, “but not so ferociously.”
The children were given a wide-ranging if rather eccentric education, at schools in Venezuela, England (where Buckley attended the now defunct Jesuit public school, Beaumont), France and the United States, and from a succession of private tutors. They became bilingual or trilingual, and were imbued especially, at their father's wish, with a somewhat mandarin command of the English language.
After graduating, as head of his class, from Millbrook School, New York, he studied briefly at the University of Mexico, before being drafted into the US Army. Just as the war ended he was posted to the Mexican border, and was discharged in 1946 as a 2nd lieutenant. He went to Yale, where he studied political science, economics and history and also taught Spanish.
He was a big man on campus, belonging to the best clubs, touring with the debating team, editing the Yale Daily News and being chosen, in 1950, as class orator for Alumni Day. His proposed speech was indignantly rejected by the university authorities because he attacked Yale and its professors for their doctrinaire liberalism and atheism. A publisher to whom he described the incident encouraged him to turn the speech into a book. God and Man at Yale, published in 1951, launched Buckley's career.
In it he named offending professors and inveighed against what he considered their brainwashing techniques, arguing that the alumni had reason to feel betrayed. The wrath it provoked was amazing; Buckley was described as “the most dangerous undergraduate ever to attend Yale”. Sundry academics confronted him, and he was invited to debate in other universities. Dancing around adversaries who had thought him just an impertinent youngster, he proved a formidable controversialist.
His sister Priscilla had been at Vassar, where she detected similar leftist tendencies. Buckley met, and in July 1950 had married, her classmate, Patricia Taylor of Vancouver. “She looks like a queen, acts like a queen and is just the wife for Billy,” declared another Buckley sister, Patricia.
After a few months working undercover in Mexico for the CIA, he became Associate Editor of The American Mercury, a journal sadly diminished from the great days of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, but he soon resigned in favour of freelance writing and lecturing. With Brent Bozell, who was with him at Yale and had married Patricia Buckley, he wrote another book to outrage the liberals, McCarthy and His Enemies (1954). In it they attacked America's anti-anti-communists. They argued that there had been genuine penetration of society by communists and fellow-travellers, but seemed not to appreciate that McCarthy's scattergun approach was much more harmful than helpful to the anti-communist cause. Nor did they make the distinction, which Buckley was to employ very effectively in other controversies later, between cast of mind and active conspiracy.
America lacked any journal of right-wing opinion, comparable to The Nation and The New Republic on the left. In 1955 was launched National Review, a weekly - afterwards fortnightly - magazine of political comment and opinion, with arts and review sections, rather like The Spectator or Time and Tide, to be both a platform and a debating ground for sophisticated conservatives.
Although only a third of the money came from family sources, it was agreed that Buckley should have absolute control of the voting shares, a provision allowing him to prevent the ideological schisms which had destroyed similar journals in the past. Rallying to this new masthead came such theoreticians of the Right as Russell Kirk, Frank S. Meyer, Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham. They shared a strong anti-communism - several of them had once been communists themselves - but in their domestic policy they formed two recognisably distinct, and to some extent incompatible, schools. On one hand were the traditionalists, whose Burkean doctrine emphasised continuity, order and Christian morals. On the other were libertarians who believed in a minimum of state interference and control.
These schools complemented each other but could never quite merge. As a group American conservatives were formulating their position almost from scratch. Despite some indigenous elements (a strict interpretation of the Constitution, for example), there was no historic party line for them to follow, so they drew heavily on British and European ideas. Their economics, derived from such Austrian liberals (very different from American liberals) as Hayek and von Mises, had much in common with what would afterwards be called “Thatcherism” in Britain.
Buckley himself was neither the best writer nor the most original thinker, but he conducted the group brilliantly. In ferocious clashes he separated National Review conservatism from two, at that time influential, factions - the “objectivists”, led by Ayn Rand who preached a doctrine of atheistic selfishness, and the John Birch Society, led by Robert Welch, which was obsessed by the notion of communist conspiracy. Ayn Rand would never afterwards stay in a room with Buckley, and the John Birchers bombarded National Review with hate mail.
The liberal establishment had responded to the appearance of National Review with a degree of venom which seems incredible now. Buckley was compared to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and the Ku Klux Klan. As he wrote in an early issue of the magazine: “Liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, but it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.” However, as he became fashionable, he became acceptable, the pet conservative of highbrow liberals, on friendly terms with such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Norman Mailer.
He began writing his own column, weekly at first, then three times a week, in 1962. Before long it was being syndicated to some 300 papers, and in 1967 received a Best Column of the Year award. In 1966 he started a weekly television show, in which he interrogated, and courteously disputed with, studio guests, including George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Barry Goldwater, Germaine Greer, Edward Heath, Alec Douglas-Home, Henry Kissinger, the Dalai Lama, Groucho Marx, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Ian Smith and Margaret Thatcher. When asked why Robert Kennedy had refused to appear, Buckley replied: “Why does baloney reject the mincer?” The original 26 broadcasting outlets grew to 120, after which Firing Line moved to the Public Broadcasting Service.
Buckley toyed with practical politics. In 1960 he helped to organise Young Americans for Freedom as a counterpart to the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society. In 1961 he was instrumental in founding the New York State Conservative Party. Beneath its banner his brother, James Buckley, was elected senator and Buckley himself ran for Mayor of New York City- primarily as a spoiling operation against the liberal Republican, John Lindsay. When asked what he would do if he won the election, he said: “Demand a recount.” He wrote one of his best and most entertaining books about the campaign, The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966). In 1973 he was invited to serve on the US delegation to the United Nations, an experience which proved very disappointing, because he was never allowed to make any speeches attacking the Soviet Union's record on human rights. However, another acidly amusing book, United Nations Journal, came out of it.
Surprisingly, in 1976, he was persuaded to try his hand at fiction - a spy thriller, Saving the Queen, which featured a hero, Blackford Oakes, a CIA man who had been at an English public school and at Yale, with obvious resemblances to the author. In that first, most extravagant and exuberant volume Oakes enjoys a love scene with “Queen Caroline” of England. His subsequent exploits - written during annual skiing holidays in Switzerland - were more soberly rooted in real political events of the Cold War era. Buckley’s books, fiction and non-fiction, made little impact in Britain and most were not even published here. But the novels became bestsellers in America, mainly perhaps on the strength of their author's celebrity.
His fame was indeed extraordinary. He received dozens of honorary degrees and awards. References to him in plays or television programmes were universally understood. He and Pat were stars of the Social Register. But his charm and modesty in dealing with all manner of people were unimpaired. This frenetic activity - writing in planes and cars and hotel rooms, constantly travelling to lecture and for Firing Line - generated money with which to subsidise National Review. The magazine sold well for that kind of journal, but had never covered its costs. Regular donations from loyal readers, including Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and Charlton Heston, helped. He continued as the nominal editor, spending perhaps three days a fortnight in the office, while the detailed editorial work was done by his sister Priscilla.
A younger team was introduced in the late 1980s, and a British journalist, John O’Sullivan, brought over as Editor. But Buckley remained Editor-in-Chief, finally giving up control in 2004.
In a sense, though, the job had been done. American conservatism had permeated the mainstream of politics, much as Thatcherism permeated British politics (and O’Sullivan had served on Mrs Thatcher's policy unit). Buckley was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
Some said that Buckleyite conservatives, like Thatcherite Tories, were really radicals, and when he was asked if he considered himself a “true conservative“, Buckley replied: “I feel I qualify spiritually and philosophically, but temperamentally I am not of the breed.”
Be that as it may, Buckley's personality, even more than his thinking or his writing, gave impetus, shape and colour to the whole movement. As the columnist George Will observed: “Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry, there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind.”
His wife Pat died in 2007. He is survived by his son, the author and satirist Christopher Buckley.
William F. Buckley Jr, author and commentator, was born on November 24, 1925. He died on February 27, 2008, aged 82