William F. Buckley, Jr. is dead at 82. He leaves behind a tremendous volume of work and a legacy of penetrating thought and refined debating. His many accomplishments include founding National Review, hosting the public affairs show “Firing Line,” and denouncing the John Birch Society and the paranoid fringe of the American right wing. Through his magazine he gave American conservatism a voice, and by repudiating the Birchers, he helped bring harmony to that voice, bringing the conservative movement into the mainstream. Consequently, it’s not a stretch to say that without Buckley, there may have been no Reagan revolution.
Though he certainly energized the GOP with his beliefs, Buckley was, unlike some on the right, a conservative first and a Republican second. As he began his slow walk down from the stage around the time Reagan left the White House, no single figure emerged to take his place. Newt Gingrich made a stab at it, but his own eccentricities brought him down. Grover Norquist has been too singularly obsessed with “starving the beast” to be a serious thinker in the Buckley mold. Rush Limbaugh, even at the height of his popularity, has been an entertainer first and foremost, and never intended to fill Buckley’s shoes. Finally, Karl Rove is in many ways the anti-Buckley: Republican first and conservative second.
In closing, Buckley’s passing is a sad time not only for conservatism but also for liberalism, since he followed a tradition of intellectual commentary that engaged opposing viewpoints in good faith through dialogue and argumentation, something our new generation of American dogmatists seems incapable of doing. And it is precisely because of this lack of engagement that bold new ideas on the left and right are few and far between. Yet conservatives should take heart: Bill Buckley is gone, but he left his shoulders to stand on, and if only they climbed up, they could see so far.
Here is a Charlie Rose special on William F. Buckley, Jr. from last year:
More thoughts on Buckley’s passing from around the web (to be updated as they they come in):
- Rod Dreher
- James Joyner
- The Corner (full of posts — just go there)
- Kevin Drum (he has no actual commentary, but his commenters go overboard in making my point from paragraph three)
- John Podhoretz
- Rick Perlstein via Henry Farrell
- Tyler Cowen
- The Economist
- Jacob Sullum
- Radley Balko
- Stephen Bainbridge
- Jonathan Martin
- Ilya Somin (who mentions Buckley’s unfortunate racial politics during NR‘s formative years but weighs it against other accomplishments)
- Brad DeLong (who quotes a post on Buckley’s racial politics, a subject DeLong has blogged about before, and also quotes a post on Buckley’s ability to change)
- Matthew Yglesias
- Ilya Shapiro
- Andrew Sullivan, who also gives us Buckley vs. Noam Chomsky
Biographer Sam Tanenhaus (h/t Ross Douthat) remembers Buckley as he responds to reader’s questions on the New York Times Papercuts blog. It’s worth quoting for the observations on race and for a strange anecdote on Buckley and the counter-culture. First, on Buckley’s progressive philo-Semitism and support for segregation:
Q: I understand that in the 1960s Mr Buckley publicly backed Southern segregationists even though he crusaded against anti-Semitism. How did he reconcile this difference in his own mind? Did he ever formally renounce or apologize for his backing of the segrationists? —John Fuller
A: In the 1950s Buckley did indeed support segregationists in the South but later changed his views. He wept when he learned of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black children. Later he became an admirer of Martin Luther King.
And then the weirdness:
Q: William F. Buckley famously admitted to having smoked pot at least once on his boat outside U.S. territorial waters. Did he continue to smoke it after trying it? What if anything did he say about the subject? —Rich Turyn
A: If so, only seldom. But Buckley was much piqued by the counter-culture. He recently told me an amusing anecdote on this general subject. In the 1970s, Buckley and one of his mentors, the political thinker James Burnham, decided they would indulge in some current vices by smoking pot and then watching the sex-drenched film “I am Curious — Yellow.” The pot was procured by Bill’s chauffeur. It was a good plan — or seemed so, except they made the mistake of drinking alcohol first. This blunted the effects of the pot, and they both fell asleep during the film.
Clearly, the teen comedy side of Bill Buckley deserves to be explored in future biographies.
Editing note: The DeLong link write-up was originally negative, but has been edited to reflect subsequent posting by DeLong.