The man most responsible for modern conservatism died today. Bill Buckley, a fearless anti-communist, a tireless promoter of the free market, and an erudite and witty debater, made conservatism cool and he made it smart.

Buckley was fearless in taking on the liberal mindset that dominates much of the conventional thinking. But he also was fearless in taking on right-wing groups like the John Birch Society. In doing so, he made conservatism a legitimate and potent alternative to liberalism.

Buckley’s commentary had depth and intellectual vigor, a far cry from what populates most talk radio today. While programs like Rush Limbaugh’s and Mark Levin’s are entertaining and certainly stimulating, they are but a faint resemblance of Buckley’s “Firing Line.” Talk radio is a seething mass of anger. “Firing Line” was witty, rich in irony and slightly detached. Buckley rarely lost his cool.

As Buckley departs the stage for the final time, he leaves behind a conservative movement that is struggling to define itself amid hard times. Is the movement defined by the angry phalanx of talk radio hosts who stoke the anger of their huge listening audience, flex their muscles by killing a comprehensive immigration bill, and attack the leading Republican candidate for president almost as vigorously as they attack the leading Democrats?

Or is the conservative movement now defined by the maverick leadership of John McCain, who is good on all the core issues like life, defense and spending, but suspect, in the eyes of many, for his penchant for populism?

Is the conservative movement defined by Evangelicals who want the government to have a stronger role in managing morality, or by libertarians who want the government to get the hell out of their lives?

Buckley helped to define the terms of conservatism for a generation. He wasn’t a politician by nature. But he helped conservative politicians chart a course that led to intellectual dominance and political success. His leadership will be missed.

[For footage of Buckley's famous debate with renowned linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, click here. — Ed.]