The warm tributes to William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative hero who died Wednesday at age 82, have emphasized all that everyone could appreciate about him: the formidable intelligence, the capacious vocabulary, the otherworldly productivity, the playful wit, the graciousness and deep, wide-ranging friendships.
He was a beloved figure who had entered American lore and, in that sense, belonged to all of us. But in the fond reminiscences, it shouldn't be forgotten what he hated. Buckley was an anti-communist to the marrow of his bones, whose lifelong mission was to crush Marxist totalitarianism. In this, he was uncompromising, relentless and -- this is what makes it possible to minimize it now -- successful.
Buckley was a master debater who took on (and usually beat) all comers, but he insisted that, with communists, there could be no dialogue. He convinced the Yale Political Union in 1962 to rescind an invitation to the head of the Communist Party U.S.A., Gus Hall. Buckley argued, bracingly, "We can no more collaborate with him to further the common understanding than Anne Frank could have collaborated with Goebbels in a dialogue on race relations."
Buckley's anti-communism had many roots. His father, an oilman who did business in a Mexico roiled by revolution, was a committed anti-communist. And Buckley's Catholic faith made him a natural foe of atheistic Marxism. But the deepest foundation of Buckley's anti-communism -- and his politics generally -- was a belief that the individual is paramount and can flourish only in freedom.
This was a philosophical and religious conviction, but also -- if you will -- a personal one. No one was more an individual than Bill Buckley. He spawned so many impersonators because his mannerisms were utterly original. To know him -- as I had the honor of doing as the editor of his magazine, National Review -- was to be delighted by his irreducible Buckley-ness and all the enthusiasms that defined him, from traveling with his special brand of peanut butter, to his devotion to his King Charles spaniels, to his boyish enthusiasm for nautical charts.
This is a man who instinctively recoiled at the leveling, deadening conformity of communism and would have died of boredom (or more likely would have been jailed or executed for brave, puckish provocations) within about five minutes in such a system.
Buckley said that communism's "extirpative passion is to eliminate man." How? By eliminating freedom. "Without freedom, there is no true humanity." Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, Buckley realized how difficult it would be to forever extinguish that hardy ember of humanity that is the individual.