He was sui generis, wasn’t he? The complete American original, a national treasure, a man whose energy was a kind of optimism, and whose attitude toward life, even when things seemed to others bleak, was summed up in something he said to a friend: “Despair is a mortal sin.”
I am not sure conservatives feel despair at Bill Buckley’s leaving—he was 82 and had done great work in a lifetime filled with pleasure—but I know they, and many others, are sad, and shaken somehow. On Wednesday, after word came that he had left us, in a television studio where I’d gone to try and speak of some of his greatness, a celebrated liberal academic looked at me stricken, and said he’d just heard the news. “I can’t imagine a world without Bill Buckley in it,” he said. I said, “Oh, that is exactly it.”
It is. What a space he filled.
It is commonplace to say that Bill Buckley brought American conservatism into the mainstream. That’s not quite how I see it. To me he came along in the middle of the last century and reminded demoralized American conservatism that it existed. That it was real, that it was in fact a majority political entity, and that it was inherently mainstream. This was after the serious drubbing inflicted by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal and the rise of modern liberalism. Modern liberalism at that point was a real something, a palpable movement formed by FDR and continued by others. Opposing it was . . . what exactly? Robert Taft? The ghost of Calvin Coolidge? Buckley said in effect, Well, there’s something known as American conservatism, though it does not even call itself that. It’s been calling itself “voting Republican” or “not liking the New Deal.” But it is a very American approach to life, and it has to do with knowing that the government is not your master, that America is good, that freedom is good and must be defended, and communism is very, very bad.
He explained, remoralized, brought together those who saw it as he did, and began the process whereby American conservatism came to know itself again. And he did it primarily through a magazine, which he with no modesty decided was going to be the central and most important organ of resurgent conservatism. National Review would be highly literate, philosophical, witty, of the moment, with an élan, a teasing quality that made you feel you didn’t just get a subscription, you joined something. You entered a world of thought.
I thought it beautiful and inspiring that he was open to, eager for, friendships from all sides, that even though he cared passionately about political questions, politics was not all, cannot be all, that people can be liked for their essence, for their humor and good nature and intelligence, for their attitude toward life itself. He and his wife, Pat, were friends with lefties and righties, from National Review to the Paris Review. It was moving too that his interests were so broad, that he could go from an appreciation of the metaphors of Norman Mailer to essays on classical music to an extended debate with his beloved friend the actor David Niven on the best brands of peanut butters. When I saw him last he was in a conversation with the historian Paul Johnson on the relative merits of the work of the artist Raeburn.
His broad-gaugedness, his refusal to be limited, seemed to me a reflection in part of a central conservative tenet, as famously expressed by Samuel Johnson. “How small of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” When you have it right about laws and kings, and what life is, then your politics become grounded in the facts of life. And once they are grounded, you don’t have to hold to them so desperately. You can relax and have fun. Just because you’re serious doesn’t mean you’re grim.
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Buckley was a one-man refutation of Hollywood’s idea of a conservative. He was rising in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and Hollywood’s idea of a conservative was still Mr. Potter, the nasty old man of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who would make a world of grubby Pottersvilles if he could, who cared only about money and the joy of bullying idealists. Bill Buckley’s persona, as the first famous conservative of the modern media age, said no to all that. Conservatives are brilliant, capacious, full of delight at the world and full of mischief, too. That’s what he was. He upended old clichés.
This was no small thing, changing this template. Ronald Reagan was the other who changed it, by being a sunny man, a happy one. They were friends, admired each other, had two separate and complementary roles. Reagan was in the game of winning votes, of persuading, of leading a political movement that catapulted him to two terms as governor of California, the nation’s biggest state, at a time when conservatives were seemingly on the defensive but in retrospect were rising to new heights. He would speak to normal people and persuade them of the efficacy of conservative solutions to pressing problems. Buckley’s job was not reaching on-the-ground voters, or reaching voters at all, and his attitude toward his abilities in that area was reflected in his merry answer when asked what he would do if he won the mayoralty of New York. “Demand a recount,” he famously replied. His role was speaking to those thirsting for a coherent worldview, for an intellectual and moral attitude grounded in truth. He provided intellectual ballast. Inspired in part by him, voters went on to support Reagan. Both could have existed without the other, but Buckley’s work would have been less satisfying, less realized, without Reagan and his presidency, and Reagan’s leadership would have been more difficult, and also somehow less satisfying, without Buckley.
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I share here a fear. It is not that the conservative movement is ending, that Bill’s death is the period on a long chapter. The house he helped build had—has—many mansions. Conservatism will endure if it is rooted in truth, and in the truths of life. It is.
It is rather that with the loss of Bill Buckley we are, as a nation, losing not only a great man. When Jackie Onassis died, a friend of mine who knew her called me and said, with such woe, “Oh, we are losing her kind.” He meant the elegant, the cultivated, the refined. I thought of this with Bill’s passing, that we are losing his kind—people who were deeply, broadly educated in great universities when they taught deeply and broadly, who held deep views of life and the world and art and all the things that make life more delicious and more meaningful. We have work to do as a culture in bringing up future generations that are so well rounded, so full and so inspiring.
Bill Buckley lived a great American life. His heroism was very American—the individualist at work in the world, the defender of great creeds and great beliefs going forth with spirit, style and joy. May we not lose his kind. For now, “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels take thee to thy rest.”