When larger-than-life William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the magazine I love and the movement I am devoted to, died while working in his study Feb. 27, he left behind a thriving conservative movement.
You might think I'm crazy for using the word "thriving." I don't blame you. After all, didn't Newsweek just announce with a "There Will Be Blood" cover that right-wing, talk-radio hosts are devoted to destroying the Republican nominee for president? Didn't conservatives just fail in an overhyped quest for "the next Ronald Reagan"? Aren't some popular, right-leaning op-ed writers going for the jugular, admonishing political and ideological teammates to "grow up," quit the "temper tantrum" and just support John McCain for president?
Sure, that's all true. It's not always a happy family on the right side of the political spectrum. But those vital signs do not indicate a stagnant movement.
On the contrary, the Republican presidential primary (which, for all purposes, has been over since Mitt Romney dropped out at the beginning of February) was bursting with conservative life. As I was trying to wrap Christmas presents, colleagues were eagerly calling and asking, "Did you hear what Rush said today?" The king of talk radio was criticizing McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for their statist tendencies, while praising Fred Thompson and ultimately embracing Romney for his conservative policies and uplifting rhetoric about American exceptionalism. Rush Limbaugh may not have "won" in the end, inasmuch as McCain wasn't his preferred candidate, but he also wasn't playing a game with a scoreboard. He was reflecting on conservative principles. He was doing what he does every day; he was applying his basic political philosophy to real-life politics.
He was asking himself, "What would Bill Buckley do?"
In a conversation with Limbaugh a few months back, talking about issues long and short term, he told me that that's exactly the question everyone who calls himself a conservative should be asking. Not because we're unrealistically deifying our now-deceased friend and mentor, as some have accused us of doing with Ronald Reagan, but because Buckley was a founder, practitioner and teacher of this thing we call conservatism. His speeches, columns, magazine and books sought to answer one central question. What is Right here?
Buckley was never a Republican Party man so much as he was a conservative, always thinking about fundamental principles. So if Republicans in general, or one Republican candidate in particular, veered off course, it was his role to point that out; to criticize, publicly or privately; to offer guides for the practical application of that philosophy. In other words, what Limbaugh routinely does on his radio show. It's what writers at National Review do from their laptops. It's what thinking conservatives do and debate -- on a blog site, at a think tank or inside a conservative Capitol Hill office.
Conservatives are forever accused of being backward. We are supposedly anti-science because we've opposed human cloning and federal funding of research that destroys human embryos. We're accused of being anti-sex because we encourage personal responsibility, self-respect and fundamentals like marriage. In truth, we can't stop thinking about tomorrow -- what consequences may arise from our decisions today. We're trying to do what Buckley did. As he wrote in his publisher's statement in the first issue of National Review, we're "standing athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'"
Buckley has inspired three generations of conservatives, now with a string of proven, historic results under our belts. We've got our issues, sure. We've got policy battles, even among ourselves on the Right, but we're alive and kicking. And the words that Buckley wrote in the first issue of National Review are as true today as they were then: "We offer, besides ourselves, a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D.s in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town."
So don't mistake the death of a legend with a rich legacy as the end of conservatism. For those of us who read, listened and learned from William F. Buckley Jr., there is work to do. He did what his talents and beliefs required of him, and so must we. Miles have gone by for conservatism, but there are miles to go yet.