The founder of the modern conservative movement in America, William F. Buckley Jr., recently passed away at his home in Connecticut.
To say that Buckley was an intellectual giant on the American political scene would be a gross understatement. As a young man in the 1950s, he launched the modern-day conservative movement with his book, “God and Man at Yale,” and his magazine, National Review.
William F. Buckley had a profound impact on my intellectual development during my college years in the late 1960s. I entered college somewhat liberal and apolitical and, atypically, came out a politically active conservative.
Reading National Review and Buckley’s columns had a major impact on me. I was first drawn to his writings by his masterful vocabulary, but soon the attraction to style gave way to the appreciation of substance.
Shortly after leaving college and entering the world of work, I followed National Review’s exposé of the takeover of an African nation by a Communist regime backed by Cuban military elements. Buckley’s magazine was critical of the support given to the Communist government by a major multinational corporation. I happened to have an account with that company and, after reading the stories, I began to write a note on my payment each month, asking them to support freedom in that country. After about three months of note writing, I got a response from a middle-management executive with the company, trying to “enlighten” me about their policies. I wrote the executive back and stuffed his arguments in his ear—thanks to the information I had gleaned from the National Review.
I sent Buckley a copy of the corporate letter to me and my response. To my surprise, he sent me a note on his personal stationery that read as follows:
“Bravo! I found his response to be obscurantist. Stay true to your beliefs! WFB”
That brief note became a prized possession.
When Buckley launched his long-running television program, “Firing Line,” I watched whenever possible. It was the civilized precursor of the political talk show programs on radio and cable television today—with an emphasis on “civilized.” Unlike the “shout them down” hosts on many of the current political programs, Buckley would never dream of trying to drown out a guest. He invited them to fully lay out their beliefs and then respond to civil questions regarding them. It was informative political discourse, not ambush journalism.
It is ironic that William F. Buckley passed away at a time when many are lamenting the current state of the conservative movement as reflected by the Republican Party. Buckley’s conservatism—embraced by heavyweights such as Goldwater and Reagan—was centered upon limited government, individual initiative, peace through strength, and morality that is practiced more than preached. Many bona fide conservatives today are concerned that the political party that is supposed to be the standard-bearer of the conservative movement has drifted into a partnership with overbearing government instead of being a counterbalance to it.
William F. Buckley was a cultured, highly educated, philosophical giant. He delighted in jousting with intellects such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who were anything but conservative, and he enjoyed their friendship. Ideology to Buckley was a philosophical set of principles—core beliefs—not simply a set of arguments and excuses used to attack a political opponent. He could not have been happy with what he observed recently in what now passes for political discourse in America.
He was a man who did indeed stay true to his beliefs—and did not substitute partisan bellowing for philosophical debate. May he rest in peace.