William F. Buckley connected the dots for me back when I was a liberal college student trying to make sense of things.
Punch drunk from the Vietnam War and the excesses of the drug-addled Sixties and Seventies, America had thrown itself on the couch and seemed to be having a nervous breakdown. Like a patient doctor, Bill Buckley gently and relentlessly helped talk the nation back to sanity with his many TV appearances and prolific writing.
He played a key role in paving the way for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which was startling evidence of America’s return to health.
Like many, I owe him a personal debt for his instrumental role in what the Left would call “raising my consciousness.” I was a conservative as a kid, but fell under the sway of liberal profs and the New Age culture. But Buckley was a key force in pulling me back to reality.
At times, he seemed to be the only sane voice on television, especially on his Firing Line program on PBS, and he had no problem being identified as a “conservative.”
He was so boldly unapologetic about the labeling that I began to identify as a conservative, too. I cheered as he skewered his opponents with good humor and ginormous vocabulary (yes, it’s an official word, now).
When a conservative neighbor learned that I was open to views other than the liberal mush on TV and on college campuses, he gave me a huge stack of National Reviews. It was a light clicking on in a dark room. “Yes!” “Yes!” I’d say to no one in particular while reading Buckley’s essays.
I met the great man at a gathering of conservatives and libertarians in Orange County, California in the late 1980s. I had just been demoted and disciplined at the Los Angeles Times for writing a piece for National Review about California Chief Justice Rose Bird and why she and two liberal justices were going to be defeated in the next election (which they were). Bird was a close friend of my editor, who was somewhat to the left of Trotsky. I doubt she would even have used National Review to paper a birdcage, and she told me as much. None of Buckley’s many books were on her bookshelves amid the Nation and Mother Jones magazines.
Anyway, I shook Mr. Buckley’s hand and told him that he had cost me a job. He was genuinely horrified, and I explained the situation. He kept shaking his head and saying “No!” and “Terrible!” as his handlers swept him off to his next encounter. It was one of the few times I recall seeing him at a loss for words.
The next time I saw him it was as part of his team on a Firing Line segment that we taped at Bard College in upstate New York. The topic was: “Resolved: The ACLU Is Full of Baloney.” Defending the ACLU were Ira Glasser, Nadine Strossen, Barry Lynn and Bard College President Leon Botstein, who responded to two leftwing demonstrators by withdrawing from the rest of the debate to show how a liberal gentleman responds to disruptors (he lets them win).
Mr. Buckley’s team, which argued for the affirmative, consisted of Catholic League President Bill Donohue, University of Texas professor Lino Graglia, and me. Longtime Buckley sparring partner Michael Kinsley moderated, and did a good job other than granting the protesters time to read their ridiculous list of demands. Buckley looked on in great amusement as Kinsley dealt with the two young ladies, who kept standing up and chanting, “Students of color have no voice!”
In his opening salvo, Mr. Buckley spoke for all of us when he summarized the problem with the ACLU:
“With its $35 million budget, its 60 full-time attorneys, 600 yearly lawsuits, its 2,000 legal volunteers, it is everywhere. The school that said that boys couldn’t come in wearing sagging trousers that revealed their underwear faced a lawsuit from the ACLU….Babies can’t be tested for HIV, the Los Angeles high school that denied to a 14-year-old girl the right to decorate her clothes with condom packages ran into the ACLU. Boy Scouts aren’t allowed to bar homosexual scoutmasters, high schools don’t have the right to test athletes for illegal drug use, we must repeal the ban against women in military combat. It reels the mind.…The ostensible aims of the ACLU are admirable. It is a national pity that it has now become, to use Sunday-suited language, a bunch of baloney. Now, my friend Ira Glasser will don his alchemical gloves and do his best. Here is ireful Ira. Watch out for him. Thank you.”
Matter of fact. No malice. On the money. Grounded in example. With warmth and devastating logic. Even at liberal Bard College, Bill Buckley probably made some converts.
He’ll be missed more than he could have known.