No single public intellectual had a greater impact on the latter half of the 20th century than William F. Buckley Jr. Founder of National Review and Young Americans for Freedom, prolific author and columnist, “Firing Line” host, and speaker, Buckley was the catalyst of the modern conservative political and intellectual movement that made Ronald Reagan’s presidency and thus the defeat of the Soviet Union possible.
In the mid-1950s, there was no organized conservative movement even remotely resembling what we know today. It had no widely read magazines. There were no talk-show hosts. The few think tanks cast themselves so far above the fray that they were largely ignored. Fresh from Yale, a brief post-graduate stint in the CIA and a provocative critique of an academic establishment already leaning left — “God and Man at Yale” — Buckley used some of his inheritance to cobble together a cadre of serious writers and intellectuals to found National Review, a magazine that would define respectable conservatism and serve as the printed home for countless up-and-coming writers and established academics alike. George Will, Stan Evans, Jeff Hart and many, many more found wide audiences through its pages.
When nutty fringes threatened to derail the conservative project, Buckley through rigorous, principled and always gentlemanly argument wrote them out of the conservative movement.
Between Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 and Reagan’s victory in 1980, that movement came to be a coalition of free-market conservatives, anti-Communists, social conservatives and Jeffersonian traditionalists. In the pages of NR one could — and still can — find vigorous, all-in-the-family arguments about the major issues of the day and just what constitutes first principles of the Republic.
Buckley had many gifts. He was a brilliant writer, an erudite speaker and TV host, and he worked fast enough to produce a veritable library by his own hand. But he also had a nose for talent, and a generous spirit for both up-and-comers and those within his wide circle who encountered career and life crises. He happily defied left-wing caricatures of conservatives and conservatism with unflinching good humor and seemingly endless generosity.
Buckley’s life was all the more remarkable because he could have just as easily done little of consequence beyond managing the Buckley family patrimony. He chose a life of political-intellectual action. He was a patriot of the first order.
Buckley battled emphysema for the last year of his life, yet he contributed to the intellectual life of the nation to his very last moment. He died while writing in his study.
As he always signed obituaries he wrote for National Review: R.I.P.