Bill Buckley: A Life on the Right

IN THE BEGINNING—of the conservative movement, that is—there was Bill Buckley. On the first day, he created God and Man at Yale. On the second day, he created National Review. On the next day, he created Young Americans for Freedom, and on the next, the New York Conservative Party. And then his column “On the Right,” and then the Philadelphia Society, and then “Firing Line,” and on the next day, the Fund for American Studies.

But on the next day and for years to come, there was no rest, because there were 56 books to write, 400 articles and book reviews to publish, 4,000 columns to get out, 2,000 speeches to give, students to meet, dinners to host, debates to win, slopes to ski, oceans to sail, music to play, laughs to laugh, King Charles spaniels to be played with—he just didn’t stop.

Until last February 27th, in the morning in his office at his desk, one last compulsive time.

Why did he work so compulsively? “My father taught me that I owe it to my country,” he said. “It’s how I pay my debt.” For a book-length disquisition, see his 35th book, Gratitude—Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country.

Now it is his country that owes Bill Buckley thanks; thanks for the movement he created that changed America and the world; thanks for standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”

By the late ’70s, the plain fact was: Most practicing effective conservatives were people who had been physically touched by Bill Buckley—had received, so to speak, the laying on of hands. They had met Buckley in person, either when he came to speak at their college—he spoke at more than 500—or at his house in Stamford, Connecticut, or in New York City at the offices of National Review, or at his apartment, or at any number of appearances he made around the country during his public career.

Buckley was everywhere, and so increasingly were his followers.

Buckley probably never intended to create a conservative movement. He said he was not “introspective” and was probably not institutionally prospective, either, but he seems to have had a sense that organization was necessary—that organizations were necessary. And he became the unifying force.

  • • •

I met Bill Buckley in 1965 when he was running for mayor of New York City—the campaign in which he delivered one of the most famous quips in American political history. When asked what he would do if he won the election, he replied: “Demand a recount.”

I had written to him in the spring of that year asking if I could charter his 44-foot yawl, Suzy Wong, for a few weeks in the summer. In my letter I said complimentary things about National Review, which I had been reading since 1960.

He wrote back saying, yes, of course I could have the boat, and then added something like: “Thanks for your kind comments about National Review. We don’t often receive such pleasant remarks around here.”

PC had not yet come to America in the 1960s, but a sampling of the comments that were often received around National Review can be found in the recently published book, Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, a collection of letters to and from Bill Buckley that originally appeared in his “Notes and Asides” column in the magazine.

In 1968, Richard Sharpy wrote to Buckley: “You ridiculous ass … [N]o one who matters pays any attention to clowns like you.”

Carl Jampel wrote: “You are a hateful un- Christian demagogue and a fit associate for loudmouth Rusher. … I don’t know whether the Lord should damn or save your little frightened cringing soul.”

And from John Owen: “The convincer in my decision to quit buying NR was the disgusting appearance of Editor Bill Buckley on TV with his seedy-looking Schickelgruber-Beatnik hairdo and sloppy-collared shirts, along with a retinue of whiney-snively-militant-Sodomite- looking punks.”

No wonder Bill let me have his boat!

Standing athwart history yelling stop in those early days was bound to produce the letters he received. Little did his detractors know that in 1991 Buckley would be awarded the Medal of Freedom.

And of course their nasty comments didn’t bother him a bit.

He gathered a band of likeminded intellectuals to write for the magazine, but he was the point man and the liberals’ target, and he loved it. He was their match.

Buckley was their match partly because he was so prodigiously productive. I remember having lunch with him one day in Switzerland. Midway through dessert he looked at his watch and said to the group of us that it was time for him to go skiing right now. He had to be back at his desk in, what was it, 33 minutes if he was going to get in the necessary time to finish the 1,500 words he had to write before dinner.

Three weeks before Bill died, I asked him on a cold, rainy day in Stamford, Connecticut, why he had not stayed longer in sunny Florida, where he had just returned from. “Ah, Danny,” he said, “it only takes me six weeks to write a book.”

It only takes six weeks if you keep looking at your watch, stay on schedule, and have Bill Buckley’s discipline.

Several years ago, Bill and I and some other friends were setting off on a cruise on Bill’s sloop from Newburyport, Massachusetts. The weather was foul. A hard wind raging against a strong tide in Newburyport’s dreadful channel made the seas monstrous. I would have waited a day. Cruising for me is not a blood sport. Not Bill. He had a schedule to meet. Deadlines loomed for columns, books, television programs. For stopping history.

At this point in my remarks, if I were George Will, I’d tell a baseball story. I’m not George Will, but I’ll tell Bill Buckley’s baseball story anyway.

When a friend asked him a number of years ago if he would go to a baseball game, Bill said: “No thanks, I’ve been.” It wasn’t that Bill was stuffy, he just wasn’t interested in professional sports, and with a thousand or two columns and speeches and articles to write, he simply couldn’t spare the time.

Like a good teacher, Buckley always encouraged others to adopt the same discipline. He pushed people to do more than they thought they could.

After Stan Evans stopped writing the “At Home” column in the old National Review Bulletin, he simply assigned it to me long before I thought I was ready to write a column. But Bill sat down and told me that the trick was always to tell a story. Easier said than done, of course, but it was the secret to writing copy, and I’m sure he gave countless journalists the same advice.

At the editorial dinners following National Review board meetings, Bill would have a general discussion and call on people to talk for a few minutes on a topic of Bill’s choosing—which you didn’t discover until just before you were to speak. It was great fun, if a bit unnerving, but it pushed you to perform.

Once he carried his custom a bit far, I thought at the time. At the 45th anniversary of National Review, celebrated on board a cruise boat that went around Manhattan, my wife turned to me moments after we had sat down for dinner and said: “I didn’t know you were speaking.” I didn’t know I was speaking either. Bill had forgotten to tell me. Or maybe it was just Bill playing a prank on me.

There were, after all, other pranks. In 1971, National Review published its own set of “Pentagon Papers” contrived entirely in-house. The magazine’s cover read, “The SECRET PAPERS They Didn’t Publish.” The “they,” of course, was the New York Times, which had published a number of genuine papers stolen from the Pentagon. William Randolph Hearst Jr. called National Review’s prank “one of the most sensationally successful spoofs in the history of American journalism.”

It was great journalism and pure Buckley.

Buckley’s discipline and energy helped synthesize the conservative movement, but his friendship and generosity were equally potent.

Ernest Van Den Haag, a regular contributor to National Review, once told me that he had said to Bill at lunch one day that his age prevented him from getting to his club and using the rowing machine. A few days later, an enormous box appeared at Ernie’s front door. Bill had sent him a rowing machine. Ernie was one of many.

Bill Buckley was friends with everyone—well, with one exception—and that quality sometimes puzzled conservatives. He really liked people. “My friendship,” he wrote, “is easily given but does not preclude concurrent disagreements.” That quality helped conservative ideas reach many people who otherwise never would have listened.

And with his legendary friendship and lightheartedness, he captivated a generation of conservative journalists who went forth to spread the good news: that conservatism could triumph and make America and the world a better place.

And it did.

Buckley’s role in creating the conservative movement is so important it is easy to forget that he was also a master journalist. He could sit down and write exquisite copy, hour after hour, day or night, in the office or on the go, before breakfast or after a long evening of entertaining guests.

I remember an evening in 1974 when Bill and I went out for dinner in New York. Pat was away and the staff had been given the night off. We polished off, if memory serves (and it does not serve well) at least two bottles of red wine—certainly no less. I decided that it would be folly to attempt to navigate my way out to Greenwich, Connecticut, where I lived, so Bill offered me his son’s room where I promptly retired. Bill, however, went to his office and polished off two columns.

Fortnight after fortnight, he edited National Review, determined the content, assigned articles, edited copy, and reviewed almost the entire issue.

He was a highly skilled editor and a professional journalist.

But he saw his calling as a popularizer. His role was to provide, as he put it, “modern formulations … in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas—the Beatitudes remain the essential statement of the Western code—but because the idiom of life is always changing and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.”

Bill Buckley was a great journalist, a great man, and a great American.

  • • •

There is much grousing these days about the conservatives’ loss of direction. Without Communism, and, some say, without pre-Reagan levels of taxation to provide motivation and direction, the conservatives wander, confused, in search of their mission, or a mission. Or a leader.

Some say that the conservative movement is over—that it ended in triumph, when Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. Certainly the movement began as a movement of outsiders, who hoped to influence the insiders who held the levers of power. When Ronald Reagan got elected, the conservatives took hold of some of those levers. Once inside the government, however, conservatives became, if not corrupted by power, at least befriended by it, and whatever else happened, the conservative movement came to an end.

A triumphant end, perhaps, but an end nevertheless.

That view seems to me to be consistent with Buckley’s own comment about his life a few days before he turned 80: “There is nothing I hoped for that wasn’t reasonably achieved,” he said.

It is certainly my sense that the conservative movement is over. A movement is a small group of outsiders, dissidents, trying to wrest power from entrenched old-timers. That is not what conservatives are doing now. Conservatives are the major political force in American politics today.

We owe that to Bill Buckley.

People say it’s not as much fun to be a conservative these days. That’s partly because there simply isn’t as much opposition to being a conservative as there was when the movement was just setting out.

To my knowledge, no one has called The Heritage Foundation’s President Ed Feulner a “hateful, un-Christian demagogue” or suggested that “the Lord damn his little frightened cringing soul.”

America is now a solidly center-Right country—whatever the returns of any particular election may suggest.

Bill Buckley saw his goals achieved: Communism defeated, free market economics widely understood if not widely enough practiced, and some sense that government could be, not the solution, but the problem.

But in Buckley’s final years, the country seems to have gotten lackadaisical: Regulations proliferate and their cost staggers. Taxes seem poised to rise and are increasingly the burden of only the most enterprising among us; and there is not a widely understood principled opposition to radical Islam.

We here in this room should ask ourselves: How can we create more opposition, opposition most especially to the modern welfare state, which if it remains unchecked will swallow up the golden eggs, the goose, and all her goslings?

There is, as many of you know, a running debate in conservative quarters as to whether a conservatism that is philosophically responsible can be politically successful. I don’t recall that position being staked out in the inaugural pages of National Review.

Some conservatives are saying it’s time to let Ronald Reagan go. If we let Ronald Reagan, must we let Bill Buckley go? Have we let George Washington go? Who said: “Man is not free unless government is limited”? Who said: “The commitment of the state to the individual is to protect the individual’s freedom and property”? That sounds like the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Are we to let them go, too? And the Constitution as well— what’s left of it?

The liberals have not yet let the ideas of Franklin Roosevelt go. In fact, three of the greatest progenitors of Rooseveltian policies were Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and, with the prescription drug program, George W. Bush. Sixty years after his death, President Roosevelt is riding hard. And we are supposed to let Ronald Reagan go? As the kids say, “I don’t think so.”

Some claim that the argument over whether we should have a welfare state is over. Surely to concede that is to crawl under our Consumer Product Safety Commission-approved bedcovers, clutching our FDIC security blanket and whispering: “Oh, history, could you please slow down?”

Now, it is true that in 1955 when National Review set sail, the welfare state was not as advanced as it is now. Nevertheless, in 1955 there was no conservative movement, no formal opposition to the welfare state. Even so, in his opening statement, Buckley described conservatives as people who had not made their peace with the New Deal. If it was possible for Buckley to start a movement in 1955 to oppose the New Deal’s welfare state, how much easier should it be for us now to oppose it, given that the country has already subscribed to much of the conservative philosophy?

Some may say it cannot be done because more than 40 percent of the population owe no income tax and the whole bottom half pay only 3 percent of the income tax.

But it seems defeatist—and un-Buckleyesque—to give up on reforming the welfare state, given the extraordinary victory conservatives achieved in 1994 in re-crafting another major welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Ladies and gentlemen: We must not despair. We should remember Bill Buckley’s admonition that despair is a mortal sin because, as he said at the Khrushchev protest rally in 1959, “The wells of regeneration are infinitely deep.”

I take that to mean also that there must be a moral dimension to our arguments, a dimension I think we are currently insufficiently attentive to.

We must demand answers to such questions as: What is either moral or charitable about A and B deciding that C should give to D? That, after all, is the essence of statism, and we must make no peace with it.

Yes, the statist philosophy, the forces of constitutional and spiritual darkness, press in on every side, riding the whirlwind of the zeitgeist. But they always have—which is why we must struggle on.

After all, if the mind of man made in the image of God can produce the Goldberg Variations, the Declaration of Independence, and the quip “Demand a recount,” who can doubt its ability to devise policies and arguments suitable for a free people that will catch the attention of the American voters, most of whom we believe want only to look after themselves and their families and make America great?

And so, as we mourn the death, and give thanks for the life, of Bill Buckley, American hero and father of American conservatism, we should recommit ourselves to paying the debts we owe to our country.

And in his memory, and for our sake and for the sake of generations to come, we must rise and be strong, and with the courage and confidence of the men and women who made America, and with a grin as big as the Grand Canyon, we must stand athwart history yelling “Stop!”


Mr. Oliver is Chairman of the Board of National Review. This article is adapted from comments delivered at The Heritage Foundation’s 31st Annual Resource Bank in Atlanta, Georgia, April 24, 2008.