William F. Buckley dies

February 27, 2008 | 37 comments

Bill Buckley died this morning. Farewell, happy warrior.

When the National Review endorsed Romney, I wrote this, but I was really writing about Buckley and the personality he impressed on the magazine:

I grew up on the National Review. I don’t remember where I first heard about her, but I started reading the magazine at the library and then bought a subscription with my paper route money. I mostly imbibed my politics with my mother’s milk, not from the magazine. But much of my basic cultural knowledge I first found through the National Review. And though most of you come from the wrong background to appreciate this, the National Review also broadened my mind and moderated my views.

She’s come down in the world lately, just a little bit, as Buckley has grown older and those closer to my generation have taken a larger role. But I still love the magazine. I love the carefully-crafted barbs, the contrarian articles making the conservative case for, e.g., global warming, the editors in love with books and culture and God and wordsmithing.

I’ve wondered what he and President Benson thought of each other, and if they ever had a falling out over the John Birch Society. Buckley seems to have had warm feelings for Mormons. At least, Mormons and Jack Mormons are positive characters in his novels, notably in Getting Right. That’s novel protagonist is a Jack Mormon who joins the John Birch Society and ends up doing a tour of 1950s conservatism. I wrote some strangled objection to him about it, which he published along with a gracious reply.

He and the National Review helped a bookish Mormon kid like me step into the wider world without becoming alienated from my roots (plus getting me over my prejudices against Catholics). We Mormons could learn a lot from his ability to help people like me get over our conservative prejudices without abandoning our conservative principles. May he find congenial company where he is gone, and may he find that company surprisingly Mormon.

P.S. Thanks for indulging me in these posts as my heroes die.
A Light Gone Out in the City on the Hill
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem


37 Responses to William F. Buckley dies

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    For everything there is a season. Ungracious comments will be unseasonable in this thread.

    The National Review is collecting tributes today, which are well worth reading.

  2. John Buffington on February 27, 2008 at 1:59 pm


    Adam, I don’t know what more to add. I love reading the NRO as they are unapologetic in their core philosophies and beliefs.

    By “…wrong background to appreciate this…” did you mean “Canadian”?

  3. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    No, not Canadians. People who don’t know conservatism from the inside.

  4. Ray on February 27, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    “We Mormons could learn a lot from his ability to help people like me get over our conservative prejudices without abandoning our conservative principles.”

    That’s what I admired most about Buckley. He was able to separate the spoken from the speaker more articulately than just about any other national political observer.

  5. Kevinf on February 27, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    As one of the “wrong background to appreciate this” (wink), I nonetheless have admiration and respect for William F. Buckley, and recognize the intelligence and integrity he brought to political discourse over the length of his career, even if I didn’t agree with him. Adam, you could choose far worse heroes than this.

  6. Bob on February 27, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    #3: “don’t know conservatism from the inside.”. But I grew up watching Buckley and hanging on his every word. His example has keep my mind open to conservatism though out my life.

  7. Bob on February 27, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Has help keep……( I also wish I had his language skills!)

  8. jnilsson on February 27, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    I have grown apart from Buckley’s views as I’ve grown older, reversing Churchill’s model of political development (no heart as a teenager and no head as an adult, apparently), but I love his style and persona. He was very complimentary to Mormons and held the missionary program up for praise in his book on National Service in the 80s.

    Goodbye Bill.

  9. Scott Fife on February 27, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    A number of years ago, William F. Buckley was a guest on David Frost’s TV show. At one point during the interview, Frost began to badger Buckley about religion, since WFB was a devout Catholic. Frost found it difficult to believe that someone as smart as WFB could also believe in God. He asked several specific questions about Catholicism, which seemed to annoy WFB. Buckley’s answers did not satisfy Frost. He then asked Buckley to prove that Jesus even lived. WFB again seemed uncomfortable, and after enduring more questions and responding about his belief in Christ, a somewhat frustrated WFB simply stated, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Frost was clearly unprepared for such an answer, and was silent for a few seconds. Frost then moved on to a different subject. End of religious questions.

    William F. Buckley proves again to all of us, the power of bearing testimony of Jesus Christ.

  10. Jedd on February 27, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    An aside: a little game I play is predicting the author of a T&S post just by reading the post headline from my news aggregator. I’m right about 90% of the time, including today.

  11. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    This post title, yeah, that makes sense, Jedd. But the last two?


    Buckley quotes here:

  12. Jeremiah J. on February 27, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    I have a very soft heart for Buckley. He was a very elegant, funny political writer and thinker. He has likely tempered many an Ayn Rand fan, and convinced not a few Birchers to reconsider their sympathies. For that he deserves considerable praise from those liberals who couldn’t do the same. There are two, maybe three conservative columnists who are even in the same league today, none who are better. Lowry is competent enough at the print National Review, but the NRO has as little visible resemblance to Buckley as any other conservative blog does, IMO.

    “…wrong background to appreciate this…”
    For those wondering, I suspect this means a conservative background, coming from which the National Review stood as a more moderate counter-balance. Perhaps I’m wrong about that though.

    “predicting the author of a T&S post just by reading the post headline from my news aggregator.”

    Now that you mention it I realize how incredibly easy that would be!

  13. Clark on February 27, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    The saddest thing about his death is that there really hasn’t been a rise of intellectual conservatives. Some saw Kristol and the neo-conservatives as his heirs. But beyond the significant practical and ideological differences most neo-conservatives simply weren’t remotely rigorous in their engagement with the issues. (Certainly Kristol became a caricature of himself over the last 6 years)

    We thus weep not just for Buckley but for a philosophically sophisticated conservative movement.

  14. Richard Sopp on February 27, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    At my high school senior banquet, a teacher called me the \”William F. Buckley of our class\”. In the 30 years since then I have never received a greater compliment.

  15. aloysiusmiller on February 27, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    William F. Buckley was my proof that conservatives were the smart ones. My father, a liberal, liked Firing Line. He had a lot of respect for Buckley’s intellect even while he disagreed with many of his ideas. Dad’s mistake was watching it in my presence. Buckley convinced me utterly and totally that individual freedom and individual accountability were the highest political values and they should never be surrendered and the State should be resisted in their efforts to take them.

  16. Bill MacKinnon on February 27, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    If Bob (#6) grew up “hanging on his [WFB's] every word,” he must have had a dictionary tucked under his arm at all times. The man’s command of the English language was extraordinary. The two TV interviews that I recall didn’t include the one remembered by Scott Fife (involving David Frost and religion) but rather featured WFB in full-blown combat with James Baldwin and Gore Vidal — two as unlikely opponents as one could imagine. This was around the time of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and WFB was clearly baiting both Baldwin and Vidal (on different programs, not simultaneously) as best he could. Baldwin came close to suffering a stroke on-camera with eyes bulging as WFB engaged in the patented tongue-flicking and salted his remarks with the best English of the 17th century. The interview with Vidal descended into a shouting match, with GV branding WFB a “crypto-Nazi”(whatever that is) and WFB employing the label “G-d Queer” with great liberality. Vidal immediately sued Buckley, and the legal battles took years to run their course. (T&S attorney corps n.b.) I was ten years behind WFB and a few years removed from the appearance of “God and Man at Yale.” As recent a graduate as he was at that time, he was felt as a phenomenon on campus, and some of the faculty members whom he had harpooned in the book (Paul Weiss of the Philosophy Dept., whose nephew was a classmate) were still smarting under the bruising that he dispensed. Over the decades, because his class and mine had reunions simultaneously, I watched carefully how his classmates from ‘ 50 interacted with him. My take was that WFB was much-admired if not beloved notwithstanding some fairly harsh criticisms of their alma mater in earlier years — a bit like the relations between Old Princetonians and Ralph Nader, much to my surprise. WFB and Nader would have made an interesting “Firing Line” card…heh, heh.

  17. Bob on February 27, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    #16: I would watch Buckley, spilled into his chair, sucking on his pencil, appearing to be looking for a word, when it was really a blade. Who was better at summing up his whole argument with his end word?

  18. Jeremy on February 27, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    I disagreed with Buckley politically on numerous fronts, but I couldn’t help be engaged by his personality and impressed by his writing. Indeed, Buckley’s word skill speaks to the power of language to shape the ideas it conveys. I suspect my opinions are much more informed by rhetorical command than I would like to think, and I wonder how my intellectual and political life might have been different if, like Adam, I had discovered the power of great writing through Buckley’s NR at a formative age, instead of, as it turned out, through Harper’s and other bleeding-heart liberal rags. (And I can decisively say that I don’t have similar “what if” thoughts about my oldest son discovering the NR of Goldberg and Lowry…)

  19. Jeremiah J. on February 27, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    “WFB and Nader would have made an interesting “Firing Line” card”

    Sign me up for the pay-per-view on that one. Are you sure it didn’t happen?

    “Closet-Nazi”. Kind of a dumb charge to make. It kind of brings to mind Peter Sellar’s laughable Dr. Strangelove character. Later Vidal absurdly corrected the charge to “crypto-fascist’.

    “The saddest thing about his death is that there really hasn’t been a rise of intellectual conservatives.”

    Which leads us to the question: What was Buckley’s effect on America? I think it was a good effect, but I don’t think he deserves credit/blame for the rise of conservatism in the past 30 years, etc. So it’s not surprising if conservatives today don’t resemble him or try to.

    “a bit like the relations between Old Princetonians and Ralph Nader,”
    Or Hampden-Sydney and Stephen Colbert….

  20. Bill MacKinnon on February 27, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    The Buckley speaking mannerisms were part of the price of admission. It wasn’t just the elegant grammar and arcane words. It was the inflection, accent, or whatever. Surely WFB had an extreme case of what is known on the Atlantic Coast as “Greenwich [Connecticut] lockjaw,” but there was some other indefinable ingredient to the performance which, combined with the arched eyebrows, pencil sucking, and tongue flicking, constituted a unique brand of showmanship. I wouldn’t want to debate the guy on any subject. Hard to think of him as essentially being from a family of Texans with deep roots in Mexico notwithstanding the more public Yale-Connecticut image. (The complete opposite of the Bushes, who in 1948 turned and ran to Texas from a Connecticut background.) In the late 1960s/early 1970s WFB’s brother, James, ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York. He too was extraordinarily bright, but I don’t recall him as possessing any of the above persona. He was sort of an engineer-turned-businessman with a crew cut. James’s campaign was a bit Quixotic, but not to the extremes that his more famous brother indulged.

  21. Bill MacKinnon on February 27, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Jeremiah J. has gotten me to thinking more about WFB’s origins and impact. One of his openly-admired heroes was the philospher/political scientist Russell Kirk, one of the intellectual founders of the Conservative movement who may not be well remembered today. I met Russell Kirk in the early 1980s when we were both governors of a university historical library located in a hamlet in northern Michigan hard in the lee of an impoverished Ottawa reservation now the site of an enormous tribal ganbling casino. Kirk lived further west in the state in a wonderful late-19th-century Italianate villa in the unlikely village of Mecosta, Michigan. I remember him telling tales of WFB in a very quiet voice with cape slung over his shoulders and unusual hat a bit like Frank Loyd Wright’s attire in later years. I believe that he was a Scottish Presbyterian (the surname would figure) who converted to Catholicism. He was very unlike WFB except for the common political and religious philosophy and powerful intellect. If you think of WFB as an extraordinary individual and individualist, think about how much he acknowledged as his debt to Russell Kirk, the quiet (even self-effacing) sage of Mecosta.

  22. R.W. Rasband on February 27, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    What got me hooked as a teenager on \”National Review\” and Buckley was his humor. Even now the magazine is, above everything else, fun to read. This quality was indicative of Buckley\’s optimistic spirit. Qualities of humor and optimism he shared with Pres. Hinckley, come to think of it, not that they were exactly comparable men in other ways. Nevertheless, for many Mormon admirers of both, it\’s been a melancholy month.

  23. aloysiusmiller on February 27, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    The LDS should be spiritual leaders if not intellectual leaders in conservatism. By this I mean classic liberalism about the rights of individuals. Our belief in agency and accountability and our belief in the evil of coercion to achieve even “good” ends should have us leading out in causes that are aligned with the thoughts of men like Buckley and Kirk. It disturbs me that there are so many Mormons who want to take control of the lives of others through the powers of the state to coercively achieve a collective good. It disturbs me that so many Mormons denigrate believers in personal responsibility as “unkind” or “heartless”.

  24. Jason J on February 27, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    A fine tribute to a conservative titan. Thanks, Adam. I’ve been pleased with most of the tributes from the media as well. Chris Matthews in particular offered very warm words for Buckley’s impact on the country and on his own political development.

    I’m too young to be as familiar with Buckley as the rest of you, but I have bumped into his works on many occasions.

  25. Jeremiah J. on February 27, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Bill MacKinnon, you have met and known some great people. Reminds me of a teacher of mine who was a teaching assistant for both Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin.

    The Buckley-Kirk tie is important, but as you note they were quite different. Among other things, Buckley’s conservatism strikes me as considerably more American than Kirk’s. Even Buckley’s Catholicism seems more American.

  26. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    That sounds right, Jeremiah J. Anyway, I think your palpable Bill-MacKinnon envy is catching. I just broke out.

  27. Mark IV on February 27, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    Contra (Ha! how’s that for a Buckleyism?) some here, I think his singular contribution was in rescuing American conservatism from the three internal threats: Birchism, McCarthyism, and the radical individuality of Randism. He succeeded in locating conservatism within Christianity, and one of the important moments in the intellectual history of the last half of the 20th century was when NR published Whittaker Chambers’ scathing response to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

    Funny thing, Adam. I just finished reading Getting It Right last week.

  28. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 28, 2008 at 12:17 am

    I remember Ed Firmage (when I was a law student) talking about Buckley speaking at BYU, and after ward answering questions to a smaller group. He was asked about the meaning of “natural law” and he offered as an example the proposition that it is self-evidently true that it is preferable to drink wine rather than dishwater. Firmage remarked that he had said this in the one university on earth where his proposition was not self-evident, and his audience at BYU had surprised him by chuckling.

    I guess my taste is toward the plain-spoken rather than ostentatiously articulate.

    As to National Review: while I am conservative on principle, I found that when the magazine had an article touching on my field of expertise (environmental regulation), it was often shallow in its analysis. There are plenty of solid reasons to criticize a lot of environmental laws as being ineffective (e.g. the Endangered Species Act) and costly out of proportion to the benefits derived (e.g. CERCLA “Superfund”), but NR’s critiques displayed a lack of knowledge of the laws and of the facts. In general, Republican politicians seem to be so reluctant to go near environmental regulation (which is pretty arcane and technical) that they are either totally outclassed in any debate or simply give up trying to understand it and let the bureaucrats and Democrats have their way.

    [Ed.--Let us avoid too much of the critical note in this memorial thread]

  29. just me on February 28, 2008 at 3:37 am

    About to go to bed with no time to Mr. Greenwood’s essay but just want to say what a wonderful man Buckley seems to have been (and despite my own socialistic leanings, I greatly respect the intellectual vigor of his libertarian–conservative advocacies).

  30. MikeInWeHo on February 28, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Can’t deny it: I loved listening to him even though I often disagreed. Guess my taste is the opposite of Raymond’s. FWIW, I don’t think he was ostentatious at all. Can’t think of many people I would rather have dinner with.

    Did anybody else here listen to the NPR segments about him yesterday? They were very respectful. I was surprised to learn he almost never spoke of politics in private conversation.

  31. aloysiusmiller on February 28, 2008 at 2:44 pm
  32. Kevin Barney on February 28, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    The Chicago Tribune ran a picture of him working in his home study, which I found fascinating. The study was huge, with books and papers piled up all over the place. It was quite a glimpse into the inner sanctum.

  33. TonyP on February 28, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    My favorite Buckley quote, which I can only paraphrase, was something he said at the funeral of a friend: “Every time I think I’ve found the perfect Christian, he turns out to be a lapsed Jew.” Much there for Mormons to chew on.

    Much as I enjoyed Buckley — and he really was enjoyable — I have to wonder where we would be today as a nation if his political philosophy had been the dominant one of the last hundred years. Would he have fought for Civil Rights, fair housing laws, equal employment opportunity? He always struck me as a little too patrician, too comfortable…I can’t imagine him out marching against some kind of injustice.

  34. tjk on February 28, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    as i saw WFB he seemed to have manners and was a real”gentleman”. so many of the media people are rude and boorish— sad to see him go.

  35. Mark D. on February 29, 2008 at 2:14 am

    33: Itching as I am to jump to Mr. Buckley’s defense, I think this dispute is out of bounds per Adam’s instructions.

  36. Kathleen Bindley on March 1, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    My recollection of the David Frost interview is a little diferent from that of Scott Fife, though I do not dispute the antagonism over religion. The prelude to WFB’s finale on the subject, as I remember, was a question posed by Frost about WFB’s favorite Bible verse. The phrasing of the question included Frost’s condescending reference to the answer given frequently by believers… “Jesus loves me this I know, ’cause the Bible tells me so.” Frost added in quite a dismissive manner: “You know… that childrens’ song”….whereupon WFB with his signature broad smile and twinkling eyes said: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” WFB responded with the kind of grace and confidence only the Redeemer can give. I would love to revisit that interview with a transcript. And where might David Frost be these days?

  37. Scott Fife on March 3, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Kathleen, thanks for your post. I was beginning to think I was the only person on the planet to see the Frost-Buckley interview. We agree on the essentials– the condescending, antagonistic religious questions that Frost pursued, and the amazing final response of WFB: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” It would be very interesting to find a transcript of that interview. After doing some research, it appears that particular David Frost Show with guest William F. Buckley, aired in October 1971.


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