In February of 1972 three airplanes, two were charter flights, the third was Air Force One, made their way from the United States to China en route to a rendevous with what historian Margaret McMillan has referred to as “the week that changed the world.”
The two charters were a bit ahead of the presidential plane, and they carried everything necessary to insure that the folks back home in America would be able to fully participate by proxy in an epoch event. Their cargo included cameras, technicians – and super stars. On one plane sat Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, and a host of news anchors and bureau chiefs – the main stream media of the day – 80 journalists in all.
And right there with them was a singular conservative anti-communist along for the ride – William F. Buckley.
At the time Mr. Buckley was the virtual sole equivalent of today’s vast network of talk-radio hosts, conservative columnists, and right leaning pundits. He was THE voice of a movement. And, though he was surely glad to be on board the plane – he was far from on board with the politics of it all.
Richard Nixon, a man who had built his career and reputation on anti-communism, was going to break bread and new ground with the biggest Communist of them all – Mao Tse-tung.
The passing of Mr. Buckley this week at his Connecticut home at the age of 82 has been observed with the appropriate outpouring of eulogies and retrospectives. Often referred to as “The Patron Saint” of American conservatives, he was a consistent voice, whether in the wilderness or on center stage.
During the 1972 trip to China he was near center stage, but the voice was very much that of a wilderness cry.
Bill Buckley and Dick Nixon had a stormy and strained relationship punctuated by occasional periods of awkward fellowship. They had first met in 1957, when Nixon was Vice-President and as Buckley’s fledgling periodical, National Review, was developing cultural and political traction. By all accounts they were mutually impressed. Buckley had admiration for Nixon largely due to his defense of Whitaker Chambers against Alger Hiss. Nixon was drawn to the intellectual gifts of Buckley. Unfortunately for the Vice President, this initial affinity did not translate itself into support for his 1960 presidential bid. Mr. Nixon was not nearly conservative enough for Mr. Buckley.
As that decade progressed, however, and the 1968 election approached, Mr. Buckley had, for the time being, suspended his hope for a viable die-hard conservative candidacy (he had passionately backed Goldwater in 1964), instead resigning himself to settling for a not-so-conservative candidate, if said contender might be sufficiently open to conservative ideas and influence.
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