William F. Buckley, Jr. is dead, and modern American conservatism has lost its chief intellectual spokesman and leader.
Buckley is one of the main reasons that I became a conservative. It wasn't just the influence of God and Man at Yale, Buckley's first and seminal book that made the case that Yale had abandoned its conservative Christian roots. Buckley had the novel idea that private colleges don't belong to their administration and faculty; these are the employees. Rather, colleges belong to the students who pay the tuition and who are there to learn. They along belong to the alumni, the living body of graduates who represent what the institution has produced; alumni also largely fund their alma mater and thus maintain their ties even when they have left.
I learned all this from Buckley, and our renegade newspaper The Dartmouth Review was patterned on Buckley's National Review. But there was more to Buckley than his books and writing. Interestingly Buckley never produced an important book after God and Man at Yale. His real influence was in who he was and what he represented. He was a suave, erudite and generous man, and he represented a conservatism that was witty, iconoclastic and fun. In my teens I had envisioned conservatives as stuffy and narrow-minded businessmen who upheld the status quo. Buckley showed me an irreverent conservatism that enjoyed life and fought to change the liberal status quo, especially on the college campus.
Before Buckley, there was no conservatism in America. The literary critic Lionel Trilling once famously remarked that America has a single political tradition and it is liberal. Conservatism, to the degree it exists, is only reaction. The conservative is not a man of ideas but simply twitches and barks in response to the inexorable march of liberal change. The conservative is against progress. Buckley himself played with this idea, and once described the mission of National Review as one of "standing athwart history, yelling Stop!" With this remark Buckley appeared to confirm the stereotype while in fact exploding it. An unthinking, unimaginative conservative would not have devised such a pithy, witty formulation.
Buckley may not have single-handedly invented modern intellectual conservatism, but he certainly made it respectable. He became the chief intellectual spokesman of the movement that culminated in Ronald Reagan. I never knew him well, although every few months I received an autographed Buckley book--typically about spies or sailing--in the mail. When Alan Wolfe launched his pompous and ignorant fusillade against my book The Enemy at Home, even suggesting that I was not a real conservative, Buckley rushed to my defense, noting that he was a far better authority on conservatism than Wolfe. In the end, it is these little kindnesses that you remember the most.
Today modern American conservatism is at the crossroads, and it's not clear what it's future will be. Oh, if only there were another young Buckley to gallantly lead the intellectual brigade. Still, what Buckley's movement accomplished, both through its intellectual and political successes, is nothing less than the transformation of American politics, even world politics. Buckley's life proves that ideas have consequences, and many of us continue to walk in the path that this far-seeing man cleared for us.
Eulogies for Buckley have emphasized, as I have, his impact on conservatism and on America. But there was a playful, outrageous side to Buckley’s personality that should not be forgotten. One or two articles about Buckley’s life noted that he had written a notorious column during the 1980s calling for AIDS victims to be tattooed on their rear ends. One writer noted that this was eerily reminiscent of Nazi policies.
Actually Buckley was no Nazi. On one occasion Buckley appeared on a late-night program with the writer Gore Vidal, and Vidal accused Buckley of being a "crypto-Nazi." Incensed, Buckley called Vidal a "goddamn queer." Both men ended up suing the other. Buckley won his case, because he was able to show that his opinions were never sympathetic to the Nazis, "crypto" or otherwise. Vidal lost his case, because, well, truth is an effective defense in a libel case.
So what about that AIDS column? Let's remember that not much was known about AIDS in the early 1980s. In particular, there were competing theories about how AIDS was actually transmitted. Little more was known than the fact that AIDS seemed to be concentrated in the homosexual community.
Buckley noted in his column that in previous epidemics, such as the syphilis epidemic of the early part of the twentieth century, America quarantined people who contracted the disease. Buckley argued against quarantining victims of AIDS. Somewhat light-heartedly, he suggested that a better alternative might be to have some insignia warning off potential partners. He came up with the admittedly strange idea of a small tattoo on the AIDS victim's rear end. Not surprisingly, the column caused immediate controversy.
At National Review, however, the controversy was of a different sort. The big question that arose among the editors was not whether there should be a tattoo but rather what the tattoo should say. Several entries were submitted, and the contest winner was my own English professor Jeffrey Hart, a senior editor of the magazine, who proposed the line emblazoned on the entrance gate to Dante's Inferno: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."