How many editors have changed the course of history? Not many. William F. Buckley Jr., who died earlier this week at 82, was one who did.
“Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America, wrote the distinguished literary critic Lionel Trilling in 1950. “The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
That was the year Bill Buckley graduated from Yale. The following year he published God and Man at Yale, a denunciation of the liberal and secular academy. In 1955, at age 29, he founded National Review, an avowedly conservative magazine that, he wrote, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one else is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Buckley and National Review did more than yell Stop at history; they turned it around, first of all by establishing a coherent and respectable conservatism.
Buckley and his writers effected a “fusion” of economic, cultural, and foreign policy conservatives, united above all by a determination to counter and eradicate Soviet communism. He effectively banished from the ranks the fantasists of the John Birch Society and the anti-Semites who had dominated much of the conservative conversation. He made known his displeasure with what he considered the liberal character of the incumbent Republican administration by saying “we prefer Eisenhower,” not “endorse.”
He brought to his work indomitable energy and optimism, an unfailing courtesy, and a taste for obscure multisyllabic words which he always employed deftly. His productivity was amazing. As the historian of the conservative movment George Nash put it: “During his nearly 60 years in the public eye, William F. Buckley Jr. published 55 books (both fiction and nonfiction); dozens of book reviews; at least 56 introductions, prefaces, and forewords to other peoples’ books; more than 225 obituary essays; more than 800 editorials, articles, and remarks in National Review; several hundred articles in periodicals other than National Review; and approximately 5,600 newspaper columns. He gave hundreds of lectures around the world, hosted 1,429 separate Firing Line shows, and may well have composed more letters than any American who has ever lived.” Whew!
National Review’s political influence can be gauged by the names of two longtime subscribers: Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. National Review wholeheartedly supported Goldwater at a time when other publications canvassed psychiatrists on whether he was insane. Buckley himself ran a quixotic and spirited campaign for mayor of New York in 1965; when asked what he would do if he won, he said, “Demand a recount.” The winner of that contest, liberal Republican John Lindsay, pursued policies that resulted in vast increases in crime and welfare dependency, near bankruptcy of the city government, and a population loss of 1 million people—results that did much to discredit liberalism as a governing philosophy.
Ronald Reagan did the opposite, showing that conservative principles and policies could produce prosperity, peace, and victory in the Cold War. Buckley was not always in agreement with Reagan: He supported the Panama Canal Treaty that Reagan opposed, and he crusaded indefatigably for the legalization of marijuana. His attitude toward George W. Bush in recent years verged on disapproval. But Buckley acted on the assumption that conservatism was a mansion with many rooms. And a mansion that would maintain good relations with other mansions, however misguided.
Buckley maintained long and warm friendships with the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and Joe Lieberman. He encouraged young writers of every stripe and was generous with endorsements.
In 1971, for the first edition of The Almanac of American Politics, of which I am coauthor, he contributed a four-word jacket blurb—“a valuable reference tool”—that gave the volume a credibility indispensable to its success. Ideas and words have power, and no one has shown more joie de vivre in deploying the power of ideas and words than William F. Buckley Jr. His last days were saddened by the death of his wife, Pat, after long illness, but he was unflagging in his Catholic faith that they would be joined together soon.
He died at his desk, writing a column, still working to change the course of history. Has any editor ever done more?