Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Conservative Avatar

Few men have had greater influence on the intellectual history of the latter half of the 20th Century than William F. Buckley, Jr. The founder and former editor of conservative magazine National Review, Buckley was a true American Tory -- a blueblooded upper crust conservative but with the anti-Communist and pro-capitalist outlook of America. His initial fame came from his memoir God and Man at Yale, which showed the anticapitalist and anti-religion leanings of the The small magazine he founded, with its intent to stand athwart history yelling "STOP" and its distrust of government programs best summarized by the statement "don't just do something, stand there" was the primary means by which numerous Americans from the 1950s to present have obtained exposure to libertarian conservatism and the philosophy of Russell Kirk.

More than just a magazine founder, Buckley became the urbane, witty and pleasant face of conservative punditry from the 1960s to the 1980s. Buckley was a smiling man of the Right. His coterie of merry right-wingers dumped the paleocons, Lindbergh isolationists and John Burchers from mainstream conservatism in the United States.

He hosted Firing Line on PBS for more than three decades, in which his trademark eye-twinkle and perspicacity ruled the day. He wrote the On the Right column for the NY Post (later syndicated nationally). He authored more than 50 books (at least 20 novels). He was a spy, a mayoral candidate, and a favorite guest of Johnny Carson. Counted among his friends were both Senator Barry Goldwater, and Goldwater's political progeny, Pres. Ronald Reagan. Indeed, as an intellectual actor on the historical stage, Buckley was the Right's indispensable man in the 1950s and '60s, as the WSJ points out:

National Review helped introduce a modern conservatism into American political life. Buckley and his talented stable of editors and contributors gave coherence and shape to what he called "a fusion" of traditionalism, anti-Communist internationalism and free-market economics. Equally important, the magazine worked to discredit fringe elements like the John Birchers, the Jew-haters and the Lindbergh isolationists.

This coalition served as the intellectual foundation for the rising architecture of the conservative movement. In 1964, Barry Goldwater defeated the Eastern establishment's Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican Presidential nomination. Though Goldwater badly lost, the ideas that animated his candidacy continued to gain support, and the 1980s saw the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and its fruits, a revolution in domestic economic policy and the undoing of the Soviet empire.

These achievements might not have happened without Buckley, who was uniquely suited to preside over the often-feuding factions of the early political right. He liked arguments over principle, but he also had an uncommon talent for adjudicating disputes and building coalitions. And though Buckley had bedrock beliefs, he had a conservative's distrust for systems and grand theories; his politics were pragmatic. His thinking and prose were governed by a critical-deliberative style that emphasized contingency and complexity. More than anything else, Buckley wanted to promulgate what he often referred to as "a thoughtful conservatism."

Buckley, the sixth of 10 children, married his college sweetheart in 1950 and they remained together until her death 10 months ago. They had one child, Christopher Buckley, author of ingenious Beltway satires such as Thank You For Smoking and Florence of Arabia. Their extended "family" remains at National Review and has spread throughout the nation's newspapers, magazines and news media.

William Frank Buckley, Junior, RIP.

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