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February 27th, 2008:

Standing athwart history

WFB 1925-2008

Few American figures can match the intellect, wit, zeal for life, or influence that William F. Buckley had. Upon his death, eulogies are popping up all over, including at National Review, the magazine Buckley founded in 1955.

I admired Buckley greatly. I had a chance to meet him for a few fleeting seconds in September 1994, when he gave a speech at the IU Auditorium in Bloomington. Buckley gave his speech, and opened the floor to questions. As a naive journalism major, I asked what I could do about being the most conservative guy in any newsroom. His answer: “Nothing.”

In retrospect, it was a historic time when Buckley gave that speech. The conservative movement had realized that it not only was mainstream, but that it was the majority ideology. Six short weeks later, the Republican Party, running on a overtly conservative agenda, won both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. The man speaking at the podium was to thank for that. After graduating from Yale, he took on his alma mater’s abandonment of faith and embrace of collectivism in God and Man at Yale. He then served time in the CIA, and founded his magazine in the midst of the Eisenhower years. He took on the establishment Republicans for leaning too far to the left, the John Birch Society for embracing discredited views, Communism, Socialism, collectivism, the welfare state, and helped introduce America to Barry Goldwater as an alternative to Richard Nixon.

Two 20th Century Giants.Goldwater’s ascent (and tidy defeat) helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan, who was busy governing California when Nixon — no conservative to be sure — was President. Buckley championed Reagan for President in 1976 and again in 1980. Reagan made no secret of his admiration for Buckley, nor did he hide that Buckley and National Review were instrumental in crafting his conservative beliefs.

Sitting in on a conversation between Reagan and Buckley would be an experience of a lifetime. Reagan was born and raised poor in the Midwest, and wound up in Hollywood just in time for the 1940s and 1950s — the “Golden Age.” Buckley was born to a wealthy lawyer and split his time between blue-blooded Connecticut and coastal South Carolina. He dominated the Manhattan social scene. Reagan’s interests were those of “everyman.” He was an avid baseball fan. Buckley sailed and never attended a baseball game until then-ACLU president Ira Glasser took him to Opening Day at Shea Stadium in the mid 1990s. Yet Reagan and Buckley remained very close, and postwar America would look far different if not for them.

Buckley also took on all debaters. Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, John Galbraith all took turns on Firing Line, which ran for more than 30 years. Of course, there was also this exchange with Gore Vidal in Chicago in 1968:

Recently, I read two books that helped me understand Buckley the person better. One is Nearer, My God, Buckley’s self-examination of his Catholic faith. The second is Miles Gone By, a collection of essays he has written over the course of his life that he compiled as a substitute for an autobiography. These are definitely worth reading.This wasn’t supposed a long tribute, but there’s much about Buckley to marvel at, even if you don’t like his politics. Reading the AP obituary, I was struck by a comment made today by his son, Christopher Buckley (most famous for the book-made-into-movie Thank You For Smoking). Christopher Buckley had just explained the his father was found dead at his desk, apparently working on a column, doing what he loved. Then his son summed up his life in 35 words better than anyone else could:

He founded a magazine, wrote over 50 books, influenced the course of political history, had a son, had two grandchildren and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean three times. He really didn’t leave any stone unturned.

No he didn’t. There is mourning however, because we won’t ever get to see him muse about the political scene, nor display his dry humor in print.