The Greatness of Bill Buckley

Terry Jeffrey

3/5/2008 12:01:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

Few Americans in the past century had as great a positive impact on their country as Bill Buckley did, and perhaps none so purely through the force of ideas and the power of example.

It would be easy to conclude that Buckley's greatness was essentially a matter of style. Many shared his basic values and political vision, but no one matched his unique fusion of charm, wit and intellect. He personified the old Latin phrase: Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re (gentle in manner, resolute in execution).

It was the fortiter in re part that mattered most, however. Buckley's charm and wit were merely tactical advantages in a strategic struggle.

What was the threat? Call it the liberal temptation. It was the suggestion of America's 20th century establishment that to become a part of it you must first surrender -- or at least signal that you no longer take seriously -- certain core principles that Americans had historically and correctly understood to be true and that, in practical terms, were essential to preserving American liberty.

It was precisely this temptation -- this corrupting influence -- that Buckley did so much to expose and beat back.

To see someone who succumbed to the liberal temptation, look at Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is a sort of anti-Buckley.

When she was young, she embraced a traditional vision of America preached by her father and her favorite high school teacher.

Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post recently reported that Sen. Clinton's father "didn't believe in debt, big government, the capital gains tax or public assistance for anything other than roads and schools." She was "enthralled" by a teacher who gave her Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative" (written by Buckley's brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell Jr.), and "she consumed it, struck by the javelin-like power of sentences such as, 'The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.'"

But after three years at Wellesley, according to Jenkins, Clinton backed Eugene McCarthy for president.

She kept moving left through Yale Law School -- and beyond. Today, she pushes legalized abortion and socialized medicine.

Presuming he did not, Hillary's high-school mentor ought to have given her "God and Man at Yale" as well as "The Conscience of a Conservative."

In "God and Man at Yale," published in 1951, Buckley explained why Yale was already producing young men who would follow the same perverse philosophical trajectory Hillary Clinton would take a generation later.

The Yale faculty, he said, was generally antagonistic toward traditional religion and capitalism.

"I propose," wrote Buckley, "simply, to expose what I regard as an extraordinarily irresponsible educational attitude that, under the protective label 'academic freedom,' has produced one of the most extraordinary incongruities of our time: the institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists."

Buckley's purpose was not merely to make a provocative observation but to prosecute a cultural war.

"My concern over present-day educational practices stems from my conviction that, after each side has had its say, we are right and they are wrong," Buckley wrote, "and my greatest anguish is not in contemplation of the antagonism that this essay will evoke from many quarters, but rather from the knowledge that they are winning and we are losing."

What in fact happened is that Buckley helped lead the battle into fields beyond New Haven, Conn. -- into America at large. He became a popular media personality and founded National Review. On his "Firing Line" TV program, he happily lacerated with nothing but sharp logic all comers from the liberal establishment -- thus inspiring young conservatives, who cheered him on. With National Review, he built an institutional home for conservative writers and thinkers, and promoted other activist conservative institutions.

In a new introduction for "God and Man at Yale" written in 1977, Buckley confessed that he had been reluctant -- "mostly for stylistic reasons" -- to go back and read his first book. He made clear, however, that he was by no means reluctant to continue the battle he had joined then. "(T)he ideals I sought to serve were those that no authoritarian society would regard as other than sedition," he wrote, "namely, the ideals of a minimalist state and deference to a transcendent order."

Thanks in no small part to Bill Buckley, the liberal establishment did not prevail. It now faces a conservative counter-establishment whose members are found everywhere from the offices of small businesses in Middle America to the microphones of big-time talk radio.

Buckley's fight goes on.