Buckley's influence, ideas reach beyond readers

Posted: Jul 01, 2004 12:00 AM
In his own surprise early announcement, William F. Buckley Jr. told us he is stepping down from control of the magazine he founded, National Review.

The influence of his magazine, his name, his style, his ideas on American thought and politics cannot be overestimated. Historians of ideas will debate his influence for decades to come. His PBS television show, "Firing Line," fed a generation of conservatives starved for any media reflection of their views decades before the age of Rush, Focus on the Family and Fox News.

But the influence of William F. Buckley Jr. extends far beyond that. A friend of mine, no conservative, responds warmly whenever Bill Buckley's name comes up. "A young classmate of mine in high school wrote a letter to National Review," he explains. "Can you imagine how proud he was when he received an actual letter from the famous Bill Buckley in reply?" The courtesy of a personal response to a high-school kid -- who knows how many budding citizen-activists in this country have been bucked up by Bill over the years?

I owe a lot to Bill Buckley, and this does not make me anything special: I am just one of scores of thinkers and writers whose careers were launched by a man whose private integrity matches his public image, and whose graciousness and generosity exceed both. My first job out of Yale (as a 26-year-old unwed mother) was as an editorial assistant at National Review. Within two years, I was given the responsibility of editing the article session.

Years later, when I wrote "The Abolition of Marriage," William F. Buckley graciously agreed to read it. What he wrote in response buoyed me then and for years:

"Maggie Gallagher has written a most extraordinary book, the axiom of which is that marriage should really endure. In thinking this, and writing about it so cogently, she affronts (almost literally) one-half of modern Americans. She does this without any trace of condescension or smugness, giving us instead the illumination that comes from hard thought eloquently distilled."

People often ask me how I became a syndicated columnist. The answer is once again Bill Buckley. I wrote a column every other week for New York Newsday. When friends suggested I should try to syndicate it, I did the only thing I could think of toward getting a column: I asked Bill. If he had declined to help, I wouldn't have known the next thing to do. Instead, he introduced me to the man who managed his own syndicated column for Universal Press Syndicate, which eventually signed me up. (Ten years as a syndicated columnist! Thanks, Bill.)

There's nothing unusual or remarkable about me. Bill Buckley is responsible for launching innumerable public careers. He and his magazine became an idea factory that launched a thousand new faces, or rather voices. For Bill Buckley understood the importance of ideas, and embodied intellectual courage, at a time when expressing conservative thoughts made you at best a radical "extremist."

And he always understood that ideas weren't abstractions -- they were what men lived by and died for, if necessary. Few celebrities can boast such a record of kindness, concern and courtesy in private as well as public life. To Bill Buckley, ideas matter, because people matter, too.

Leon Wieseltier (literary editor of the New Republic) expressed this complex judgment to The New York Times on Buckley's work: "His thinking and his writing have all the disadvantages of a happy man." Wieseltier calls it the "troubling thing" about Bill Buckley's work. But it has always been Buckley's great distinction: to stand athwart history and yell "Stop!" -- but cheerfully, gleefully even. A happy warrior temperamentally incapable of becoming a prophet of doom.

The Greeks warned us to call no man happy before he is dead. But to this, as to so much else, William F. Buckley can be called the truly exceptional man.