Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

William F. Buckley, 1925 – 2008

William F. Buckley passed away this morning at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.  He was 82.  Buckley suffered from diabetes and emphysema, but the exact cause of death has not yet been determined.

Buckley In the course of his long and illustrious career, Buckley founded a magazine, National Review, wrote 45 books (numbers 46 and 47 will be published later this year), penned over 5,600 columns, and hosted one of television’s longest running programs, Firing Line.  His books reflected his towering intellect and broad range of interests and expertise – everything from sailing travelogues to spy novels to political and social commentaries.

Buckley showed the world that you could be a conservative and still have a brain.  In post World War II America in the wake of the New Deal, liberalism was so dominant that it was seen as the sole intellectual tradition.  Leading intellectual Lionel Trilling said in 1950, “It is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”

William F. Buckley single-handedly changed that in the 1950s.  At National Review’s 30th anniversary in 1980, President Ronald Reagan said:

“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. And then, as if that weren’t enough 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.”

Like most fiery advocates, Buckley almost thrived on controversy.  He was delighted when historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. called him “the scourge of liberalism.”  He loved comedian Robin William’s imitation of him, arching eyebrows and trailing vocal inflection and all.  Author and Buckley contemporary Norman Mailer called him a “second-rate intellect” who couldn’t entertain two serious thoughts in a row.  But in reality, he knew better.

Buckley famously suffered from sesquipedalianism, the use of enormously long and obscure words.  (The New York Times points out that many detractors preferred instead to say he was “pleonastic,” meaning he used more words than necessary.)  Buckley’s incredible vocabulary regularly sent PhDs scurrying for a dictionary or thesaurus. 

Most people didn’t know that his mastery of the English language notwithstanding, Buckley’s first language was Spanish. His father made his fortune in the oil fields of Mexico. Buckley’s early education was with personal tutors and at exclusive Roman Catholic schools in England and France.  After graduating from prep school in 1943, Buckley studied for half a year at the University of Mexico.  Despite his vocal opposition to the US involvement in WW II, Buckley served in the Army from 1944-46, earning the rank of second lieutenant.

After leaving the Army, Buckley went to Yale, where he became a skilled debater, headed up the Yale Daily News, and, yes, for all of you conspiracy buffs, he was a member of the exclusive and secretive Skull and Bones society.  Buckley was tapped as a senior to deliver the Alumni Day speech, but was pulled when officials learned his speech would be a stinging indictment of the school.  The speech that was never delivered became the 1951 book that would propel Buckley to fame, “God and Man at Yale.”  The book accused the university of having collectivist and atheistic tendencies, and called for the firing of faculty members who promoted values contrary to those the institution had traditionally upheld.

William F. Buckley suceeded in making conservatism mainstream by alienating the wacko fringe like the John Birch Society and focusing attention on authors and thinkers like himself.  He will be remembered as much for his humor as for his intellect.  When he made a Quixotic run for Mayor of New York in 1965, he was asked what he would do if he actually won the race.  His answer: “Demand a recount.”

Author Hugh Kenner once said of Buckley, “Without Bill — if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else — there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country.”

Those of us in the church could also learn a lesson from his civility.  While there was no more passionate advocate for conservatism in the world, William F. Buckley had almost as many friends on the left as he did on the right.  It was not necessary to agree with him to be his friend. 

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