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Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.

One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed....different plans have to be made. And the kernel here is the acknowledgement of defeat.

A conservative is a fellow who stands athwart history and cries "Stop!"

— William F. Buckley, Jr.

Author, Editor, Political Activist, Television Personality

Born: New York City November 24, 1925;
Died: Stamford, Connecticut February 27, 2008

How can one describe one of the finest American writers of the late 20th century using words so much plainer than his own? That's why this article begins with three quotes from William F. Buckley, Jr., the father of the late-20th century American conservative movement. What do you mean you don't believe it? Well, William F. Buckley's idea of conservatism was light-years away from the neoconservatives of today.

Buckley's delightful wit and sense of humor tempered the awe-inspiring intellect he possessed. Ever practical, always controversial, Buckley could debate with the best, and win every time. That's what he did on his award-winning television program, Firing Line, which ran from 1966 until 1999, first on New York's WOR-TV but switching to public television. Buckley beat Johnny Carson for the honor of "longest-running television program with a single host," racking up more than 1,500 tapings; a staggering amount. From newspaper reporters to Presidents, Buckley would not tolerate doubletalk from his guests, responding with pearls of wit such as, "I would like to take you seriously, but to do so would affront your intelligence.”

Buckley is probably best known for his television appearances (beside Firing Line he appeared frequently on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as well as other talk-show format programs). However, he founded The National Review, a conservative periodical, in 1955, to give a voice to his new idea of conservatism. Prior to National Review, intellectual conservatives had no forum for their then-radical ideas about government. Circulation of the magazine has never quite reached 200,000.

The liberalism which was popular post-Depression and post-World War II, he thought, would lead to socialism, or worse, communism. With The National Review, he could cull out crackpots the likes of George Wallace, The John Birch Society and others (even Ayn Rand) who were giving the conservative movement a bad name. He did not, however, always embrace the views of The Republican Party as his own, much to their regret. Hugh Kenner, a frequent contributor to The National Review said in an interview, "Without Bill — if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else — without him, there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country."

Buckley's brand of conservatism distilled to its essence is realism, a sense of organic morality not without foundation in the Judeo-Christian style of religion. He espoused self-reliance instead of reliance on government. The man who convinced Ronald Reagan to run for President, Buckley, like Reagan, also believed in keeping government small and taxes low. Reagan said on a number of occasions that he deeply respected the intellectual right-winger.

Early Years

Buckley was one of ten children born to William Frank Buckley and Aloise Steiner Buckley. His Christian name was initially William Francis Buckley, at the insistence of a priest, but as a precocious five-year-old he begged his parents to change the middle name, so they agreed on "William F. Buckley, Jr." Buckley's father made his money in Mexican and South American oil. First educated by tutors, the Buckley children also were given a primary education in Roman Catholic schools in England and France.

As an adult, he was linguist and master of the English language, particularly in its more arcane and multi-syllabic forms. He did not first learn English, however. As a toddler he learned Spanish, and at primary school in France learned French. English was learnt at age 7.

By age 14, he enrolled in the exclusive Millbrook School, a college preparatory school nearby his family's estate in Sharon, Connecticut. After Millbrook, he spent a year at the University of Mexico studying Spanish.

After a stint in the army, Buckley went off to Yale University. He studied political science, history and economics, and became chairman of the school's newspaper, the Yale Daily News. He was also granted entry into Skull & Bones, Yale's most secret society, a fraternity of the offspring of the wealthy and powerful. He was selected to give the speech for Alumni Day but another student was chosen after the administration of the university objected to very outspoken and strong attacks on the venerable institution.

Always "stirring up the pot," Buckley took his complaints and turned them into his first book, "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom'." The book, published in 1951, brought him to national attention both negatively and positively. Beside accusing Yale of promoting atheism, he objected to the University's progressivism, calling for firing of faculty who held beliefs in opposition to his strict conservatism and Catholic tradition. The book was panned by many, however, it garnered a blurb in the New York Times Book Review, the author of the review calling it "a necessary counterbalance."

Worldly

Buckley led quite a life; like something out of a great novel. His adulthood started with a one-year stint with the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, reporting directly and exclusively to E. Howard Hunt (Hunt went on to become one of the Watergate "plumbers.")

He wrote some more, on his own and for a now-defunct magazine, and gave lectures on his occasionally unorthodox views of morality, politics and the economy. In 1954 his book, written with brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell,  "McCarthy and His Enemies" made the New York Times best-seller list. The book supported the vehemently anti-communist McCarthy, who beside conducting the "witch hunts" of the 1950s, was also against liberals and the Democrat Party in general.

When Buckley started The National Review, the feces hit the fan. Buckley actually aligned with Southern segregationalists, proposing, among other things, that blacks were at that time culturally and politically inferior to more-educated whites. Buckley, in a rare move, backed down at the objections of other conservatives, correcting his earlier belief with a piece stating that uneducated members of both races should be denied the right to vote.

Merely because one was a Republican didn't immediately earn Buckley's favor. He was much happier with conservative Republicans. When Dwight Eisenhower ran for President, in typical Buckley fashion, his magazine put a spin on the slogan "I Like Ike," with a witty, funny, yet quite to-the-point headline on his editorial page that stated "We Prefer Ike."

Front Line gave television viewers a look at Buckley's wide, pearly-white grin, and a chance to hear his peculiar accent, which his detractors called pretentious and phony. Buckley, however, was fluent in a number of languages and had been educated for a time in France during his formative years, so his voice came out as almost a parody of a Newport blue-blood, with a dollop of a British-sounding thing thrown in for good measure. Suffice it to say, his voice was unique, his delivery, impeccable.

He skewered the best of them, too many to mention here. By way of example, he was speaking to a New York City politician with whom he disagreed. In his inimitable fashion Buckley grinned like the Cheshire Cat and after waiting just a moment said sotto voce: "You've been on the show close to 100 times over the years. Tell me ... have you learned anything yet?"

Buckley the political commentator was also an accomplished novelist who somehow found time to write at least 55 books, fiction (he wrote a number of spy novels) and non-fiction, political and self-documenting. He edited five more. The 4.5 million words in the nearly six thousand newspaper columns, the syndicated "On the Right," would fill 45 more medium-sized books, according to The New York Times obituary of Buckley. His papers, donated to Yale University, weighed in at about seven tons.

"Ducky"

William F. Buckley's wife, nee Patricial Aldyen Austin Taylor, predeceased him in April of 2007. The Buckleys had been married for 57 years. "Pat" Buckley was a well-known socialite, often giving generously to charitable causes. She did not allow the society scene to interfere with what she asserted were far more important roles; that of being wife and mother (they had one son, Christopher, who survives them). Their relationship was special, and it was well-known that Pat and Mr. Buckley called each other "Ducky."

One of Buckley's life-long passions was sailing. He sailed around the world a few times, and would get away on his boat whenever time allowed. The Buckleys also traveled extensively. Beside sailing, Buckley enjoyed (occasionally) riding a motorcycle through the streets of Manhattan.

Buckley's brother, James, served as a U.S. Senator from New York. Although he was very involved in Barry Goldwater's run for the Presidency in 1964, and himself made a run for Mayor of New York City in the '60s, William avoided government assignments. Peculiarly, even though he had differences regarding economics and the policy of detente, President Richard Nixon appointed him to a post at the National Advisory Commission on Information. He was also briefly part of the United Nations delegation in 1973.

Eloquence in Words, Constantly in Controversy

Buckley was one of a gaggle of writers including Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer who were in the thick of controversy, and rather than pal around, would at any chance have a battle of wits. Things got out of hand, though, when Buckley was debating Vidal during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vidal called Buckley a "pro-crypto Nazi." Buckley responded by calling Vidal a "queer," and threatening to punch Vidal in the face. Each ended up being commissioned by Esquire Magazine to do a piece about the other. Oh, they wrote about their experience and it ended up in a litigation and counter-suit. Although both actions were dropped, Esquire's editors printed an apology to Buckley about printing Vidal's stinging essay, "A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley." Vidal crossed the line by accusing Buckley of the 1944 vandalism of a church in Connecticut because the pastor's wife had sold a home to a Jewish family. Beside Esquire's apology, Vidal was forced to reimburse the wealthy Buckley for his legal fees.

Mailer couldn't stand Buckley, calling him a "second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row," but admitted that Buckley always had good stage presence on television. Buckley once said of Mailer, demonstrating his incredible talent for utilizing amazing language at a moment's notice: “Norman Mailer decocts matters of the first philosophical magnitude from an examination of his own ordure, and I am not talking about his books.”

He earned the nickname "a liberal's favorite conservative" probably after his surprising statement about marijuana legalization. He continued to enjoy that "title" after hosting a 1982 public television adaptation of "Brideshead Revisited," by Evelyn Waugh.

Pure Buckley

The man's sensibility and intellect never ceased to amaze even his most vehement opponents. Liberal radicals and Libertarians alike were astounded at his suggestion that drug legalization, particularly legalization of marijuana, would be good for the country. He got over this suggestion, however, later opining that the tobacco ought to be made illegal.

Buckley was an accomplished harpsichord player who also played the piano wonderfully, at times, in public. Bach was his favorite composer.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, is writing a Buckley biography. He says that the most interesting thing he found out about the outspoken conservative was that though he could engage in fabulous conversation about anything, music, sailing, literature; he hated to talk about politics. He quoted Buckley, "I only talk about politics when they pay me to do it."

Tannenhaus also said that he'd never heard Buckley take a verbal stab at someone personally; he was never insulting nor overly critical. "He had a large sense of the human comedy." I guess Mr. Tannenhaus wasn't present at the debate between Buckley and Vidal.

Buckley did run for Mayor of New York City in the mid-'60s. He was disgusted by the political correctness (yes, even then) contrasted with the rampant taking of bribes by City employees of every rank, and the overweight bureaucracy which he thought was destroying the great city. His conservative platform included progressive measures like traffic fees for cars and bike lanes all over the city.

A heated discussion with Ayn Rand so agitated Rand that forever after their encounter, she would dramatically stamp her way out of a room as soon as she saw Buckley holding forth at a dinner or party or whatever. Buckley was delighted when historian Arthur Schlesinger called him "the scourge of liberalism."

Conclusion

The website of The National Review is a fine place to learn more about Buckley-style conservatism. It's located at www.nationalreview.com and contains articles written by the leading intellectual conservatives of today. The site also archives and renders searchable all of the issues of the magazine, going back to its infancy in the mid-1950s.

Arch-conservative ex-Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich summed William F. Buckley's life in politics up by saying, "Before there was Goldwater or Reagan, there was Bill Buckley." A number of conservatives said that by encouraging Reagan to run, and offering guidance to the President, Buckley paved the way for the fall of communism in the U.S.S.R.

Buckley's brand of conservatism may never be imitated. His intellectual prowess is shared by only a select few in recent history.

 

SOURCES:

"William F. Buckley is Dead at 82," by Douglas Martin, The New York Times, February 27, 2008  here (Accessed February 27, 2008)

"Before Goldwater or Reagan, There Was Buckley," compiled by Matt Phillips, The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2008 here (Accessed February 27, 2008)

The National Review Online, biography (uncredited) as well as various articles, February 27, 2008 http://www.nationalreview.com (Accessed February 27, 2008)

William F. Buckley, Jr. Quotes: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/w/william_f_buckley_jr.html (Accessed February 27, 2008)

William F. Buckley, Jr. Biography, BookRags.com http://www.bookrags.com/biography/william-f-buckley-jr/ (Accessed February 27, 2008)