Paul Greenberg

Today's America has quite a different political climate from the one into which William Frank Buckley was born November 24, 1925, mainly because he made the difference.

It was an America in which the conservative philosophy could scarcely be called a philosophy; it was more like a relic under glass, its skeletal remains rolled out now and then for an occasional autopsy by Walter Lippmann or a funeral mass under the direction of George Santayana. Any distinction between conservative thought and right-wing nuttism, the holy and profane, had long ago blurred into inconsequentiality. Those bones had about as much chance of living again as Robert A. Taft had of being elected president of the United States.

By 1950, the cultivated Lionel Trilling, one of the few members of the professoriate who had some reverence for the old ways, could observe: "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation."

Professor Trilling's diagnosis was all too accurate. Oh, there was still a conservative impulse in American politics after the second Great War - "perhaps even stronger than some of us know," the professor admitted. But there was no extant conservative thought, he opined, only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." That comment was more than a diagnosis; it could have been an epitaph.

That was the valley of dry bones into which strode a young student at Yale - Buckley, Wm. F. Jr., of the Connecticut and oil Buckleys - and which he proceeded to bring to life despite the best efforts of academe to discourage him. It's not that Bill Buckley was present at the creation of the conservative revival; he pretty much created it, beginning at Yale.

This obstreperous young Edwardian, complete with the manners and accent of his rarefied class, outpointed Yale's stultified bureaucracy at every opportunity. This snooty caricature of all that Yale was solemnly dedicated to extirpating reacted to its solemn efforts by compiling a best-selling catalogue of its dull gray sins. Instead of being cowed like a proper undergraduate eager for the system's approval, young Buckley fought back with surprising zest. The result was his "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ŒAcademic Freedom.' "


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.