WASHINGTON -- William F. Buckley Jr., who died Wednesday, appropriately enough in his study, was one of the most stupendous educated Americans of the 20th century. He was among the founders of the American conservative movement that crept out of the New Deal years, advocating market economics, traditional social values, and aggressive resistance to communism. Such ideas were viewed disdainfully by the reigning orthodoxy, liberalism, but by the 1980s, Buckley's positions pretty much had defeated liberalism wherever democratic elections could be held. Without him, this change would have been either impossible or much-delayed.
He brought together serious intellectuals, for instance James Burnham and Russell Kirk, to found what became modern conservatism's first great organ of opinion, National Review. He and his colleagues wrote important books that served as the foundation of their movement and made them and their political leader, Sen. Barry Goldwater, popular figures in the early 1960s. Even members of the liberal media nodded in respect, at least until Goldwater allowed himself to be drafted as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. From that point on, the liberals' template was set. Conservatives were stupid, warmongers and bigots through the Reagan years, the Gingrich years and right up to the present. But in the early 1960s, this was not the liberal consensus. Some respect was shown.
It was in those years that Buckley was everywhere assisting in the founding of conservatism's student wing, the Young Americans for Freedom; its ideological forum, the American Conservative Union; and the Conservative Party of New York. He began what was soon one of the most popular syndicated columns and, in 1966, a weekly television debate series that became public television's longest-running talk show. For years, he lectured and debated a couple of nights a week. In an era when intellect still flourished, Buckley was the finest debater in the country.