William F. Buckley Jr.

William F. Buckley Jr. passed away yesterday after a long illness. His voice is now still, but his legacy is intact. Bill Buckley was, quite simply, next to Ronald Reagan, the most important conservative of the second half of the 20th century. His erudite and humorous writing and speaking style proved that conservatism can be not only intellectually compelling, but also entertaining. He was Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett before there was talk radio.

Buckley’s greatest contribution consisted of nothing less than constructing the intellectual and philosophical framework that paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the success of other working conservative politicians from Barry Goldwater to Jack Kemp to Newt Gingrich. He surveyed the political scene in the early 1950s and found conservatism an incoherent mess, ranging from the America First crowd to the anti-communists to constitutionalists. His founding of the National Review in 1955 began the process of making conservative thought relevant again to policy and politics. He recruited an incredibly talented band of conservative writers for the magazine. One of them, Frank Meyer, with Buckley’s full support, created the “fusionist” conservative coalition of traditionalists, libertarians and pro-America conservatives that elected Reagan and has dominated American politics for close to 50 years.

Bill Buckley rejected extremism and purged anti-Semitism and the John Birch Society from the conservative ranks. His infectious sense of humor was a welcome antidote to the dour face of conservatism that dominated the times. (No wonder he and Reagan got along so well.) He also made friends across the political spectrum; how can anyone forget the lively debates that Bill conducted with his political nemesis and close friend, the liberal professor John Kenneth Galbraith? Like Reagan, Buckley thought you could fight tough political battles with your opponents, but still have a drink together after 6 o’clock.

Buckley was born into privilege but made his own way in the world. He was a democrat (small d) and believed deeply in the common sense of ordinary Americans. Much to the consternation of Ivy Leaguers everywhere, he once famously remarked that he would rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Manhattan telephone directory than he would the Harvard faculty. He realized the dangers posed by too much education and intellectual posturing.

Bill Buckley was known for his newspaper column, which he wrote until his death, his TV show “Firing Line,” his founding of the National Review and several dozen books he authored including such classics as God and Man at Yale, Up from Liberalism and The Unmaking of a Mayor. He ran for public office just once, in 1965, and when asked what he would do if he won the election, he replied, “Demand a recount.” The transformation to conservative optimism about winning elections would have to wait for Ronald Reagan.

Buckley generously gave of his time to inspiring and recruiting three generations of conservative activists that followed him. He was responsible for the founding of Young Americans for Freedom (where yours truly had the pleasure of benefiting from his advice), Young America’s Foundation, and the Fund for American Studies. He also made it a point to hire and encourage young conservative journalists through the National Review and elsewhere.

Bill Buckley will be missed by all in our country who value freedom, and we will not see his equal for some time.

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