One of the influential decisions Buckley made in those early years was the formation of Young Americans for Freedom, a student organization he helped found at his family estate in Sharon, Conn. I started a YAF chapter at B.U. and for one our very first acts we invited Buckley to speak on campus, which he did. He was witty, provocative and articulate. But as I recall, a number of professors and leftist students who attended walked out in protest soon after he began to speak. This was the level to which academic discourse had sunk on our college campuses. It only grew worse.
At the time, I was writing a pamphlet on issues of the day, depositing a stack of them in the student union. One day a professor came into his class carrying all of them, made a few uncomplimentary remarks about what I had written, then unceremoniously dumped all of them into the wastebasket.
Perhaps the high point of YAF's political influence in the early '60s came when the organization held a rally at Madison Square Garden. Students from around the country packed the Garden to the rafters, flocking to hear conservative leaders such as Sens. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and John Tower of Texas. The New York Times, astounded that so many conservatives could fill the Garden to overflowing, slapped the "Thunder on the Right" story on its front page. Many of the national security and free market themes struck by the speakers at that rally reverberated into the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. Goldwater, against heavy odds, went on to wrest the GOP presidential nomination from the Eastern wing of the GOP and pioneered the political path that led to Ronald Reagan's presidency.
One of the speakers at that rally was L. Brent Bozell, Buckley's brother-in-law and colleague at National Review, who brought the audience to its feet when he declared that the next president should tell the Soviet Union to "tear down the wall." Reagan delivered that ultimatum near the end of his presidency and the Berlin wall came tumbling down along with the evil empire.
After college, I went into journalism and ended up covering Goldwater and Reagan -- and interviewing them many times -- as the conservative movement climbed toward the summit. I don't think many of the Washington reporters who wrote about their campaigns really understood the immense political role Buckley played in the ascendance of conservatism up to that time.
I remember, during Reagan's 1980 campaign, walking up to the front of his campaign plane to interview him, and there in his open brief case next to him was a copy of Buckley's National Review.
"We wouldn't be here without him," Reagan told me.
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