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Remembering William F. Buckley Jr.

The death of William F. Buckley, Jr. deprives the modern American conservative movement of its founder, for Buckley was preeminently the founding statesman of the movement that gained its political expression first in Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan. When Buckley founded National Review in 1955 at the age of 29, he lit the fire that sparked the movement.

Buckley had already achieved notoriety — if not celebrity — with the publication of %%AMAZON=089526692X God and Man at Yale%% in 1951. He attacked the undergraduate education on offer at Yale for its hostility to Christianity and its adulation of collectivism and sought to dispel the indifference of Yale alumni to their supervisory responsibility, calling on them to grasp the nettle of university governance.

When Buckley founded National Review as the voice of the movement, he performed two acts of statesmanship that were vital to the movement’s ultimate, if unlikely, success: he reserved exclusive ownership of the magazine to himself so as to prevent the kind of sectarian brawls that had killed other such magazines, and he prohibited John Birchers and other kooky anti-Semitic organizations from the magazine’s precincts.

Recall, as John Judis does in his biography of Buckley, that in 1954 the fortunes of the American Right had never appeared dimmer; the principal right-wing organizations were anti-Semitic and neo-isolationist throwbacks to the thirties and forties. Recall also that in the Publisher’s Statement of National Review‘s first issue, Buckley defined conservatism as the willingness to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who do.”

Buckley conceived of the magazine’s mission as presenting “a responsible dissent from Liberal orthodoxy,” adding that the magazine’s editors had “a considerable stock of experience with the irresponsible Right.” Perhaps equally notably, the “responsibility” on which Buckley staked the magazine’s mission was never to be confused with dullness. Both he and the magazine took on the best that the liberals could furnish and bested them with a smile on their face and a glint in their eye.

Dartmouth English Professor and long-time National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart captured “Buckley at the beginning” in his glory at the moment National Review was about to appear:

A debate had been announced, to take place in Harvard’s Lamont Library, between Buckley and James Wechsler, the diamond-pure liberal editor of The New York Post. Later Buckley would aptly write that Wechsler was so pure a liberal that he ought to be on exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, for tourists and schoolchildren to gawk at, as they did at Piltdown Man. He or someone else said that Wechsler was like a bronze bust of The Liberal that one might strike matches upon.

What happened on the appointed night in an auditorium at Lamont Library gave a preliminary indication of at least one of the many qualities that would render Buckley famous and National Review successful: Buckley’s bravura. The auditorium was jammed, his entrance buzzily awaited. Then down the aisle he proceeded with his wife Pat, she very tall, wearing an enormous leopard hat and large bag, also leopard. Buzz from the audience. At the podium, after thanking the host for his introduction, Buckley observed, with an elfin grin (soon a signature feature), that he was very pleased to see Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., there in the audience. Then he added, “His many books would be dangerous if they weren’t so boring.” In his bow tie, Arthur looked Arthurish. Laughter. Not hostile. And the Harvard students loved it. Buckley’s entire performance was Byronic, rakish, and marvelous. His intonations were unique, though today familiar. They seemed something gorgeous, maybe out of the English fin de siècle, Beerbohm, Beardsley.

Whatever sober points Wechsler might have made, he was obliterated by the stylistic contrast and, ink-stained wretch that he obviously was, slunk back to the then-liberal New York Post. Right there, I saw the conservative movement being born, and liberalism made otiose. Right there was the esprit that caught the attention of early National Review readers-especially the young.

This was no stuffed-shirt or classroom policy wonk. This had nothing to do with the dismal science and its green eye-shades. This was great theater.

Hart’s recollection situates Buckley in the campus setting that was the focus of so much of his interest. Until he gave up public speaking in 1998, his frequent campus speaking engagements were part missionary work, part performance art, and like nothing else available on the campuses he visited. In the decades following the founding of National Review, the conservative movement experienced successes that must have exceeded even Buckley’s visionary imagination. Yet the university remains almost entirely untouched by Buckley’s call to action. In fact, it understates matters considerably to say that circumstances on campus have not improved since the publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951.

Courtesy of Professor Hart, I joined Buckley for dinner when he arrived at Dartmouth to speak upon his return from Nixon’s trip to China in the spring of 1972. Buckley could not have been more gracious to Professor Hart’s guests, not a conservative among them. At Buckley’s speech following dinner, a drunken antiwar protestor assailed Buckley during the question and answer period: “Mr. Buckley, Mr. Buckley, Mr. Buckley,” he began. “Do you really think the United States is in Vietnam to protect the freedom of the Vietnamese people, or rather to exploit their resources, take over their country, pursue imperial ambitions and wage a war of aggression?”

“The former,” Buckley responded.

Reflecting on the death of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell invoked the words of an eminent friend of Johnson: “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. -Johnson is dead.-Let us go to the next best:–there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.” And so may it be said of William F. Buckley, Jr. He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. RIP.

Scott Johnson blogs at Power Line.