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.