How do we become what we are?
Defining experiences and encounters with key people blend with the genes that form each one of us. So it is with the late William Buckley, who deeply affected not only your correspondent but the nation.
Public writing should employ the first person singular sparingly. Yet in the case of Bill Buckley it’s unavoidable with me as with so many.
I met him in college in the early ’60s and worked with him off and on for two years, mostly during summers, and then into the Goldwater campaign. At just the right age, for me philosophically, he raised the blinds and turned on the lights.
Bill was my first mentor (of three) and my first editor (of two). Inter alia, he was editor and I was research gopher for a book — “The Committee and Its Critics: A Calm Review of the House Committee on Un-American Activities” (Putnam, 1962) — and remain the last man on the planet to boast four hardback and three paperback copies. We exchanged edited chapters in his garage office in Stamford, Conn. In today’s vernacular, it was a seminal “learning experience.”
Bill was a happy, enabling, nexus kind of guy. Through him I met and sometimes worked with the dominant minds of the hour: former Communists Frank Meyer and Whittaker Chambers, free-market godfather Milton Friedman, political scientist David Rowe, and Willmoore Kendall (“John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule”) — regarded by whack-left Yale as so intellectually inconvenient that the school bought his tenure to get rid of him. Heady stuff in heady times.
Bill also helped steer me to two years of graduate work in classical political philosophy, the American Founding, and persuasion with another mentor — the University of Chicago’s Leo Strauss — and was instrumental in my landing a job in Richmond, Va., where my feet have remained in concrete. And it’s fair to say Bill even redirected my marriage path because his wife Pat had one of her always-understated opinions (“she’s godawful”) about the girl-of-my-dreams I was dating when I knew Bill best.
But enough of all that. How did Bill Buckley, a genuine revolutionary, change the nation? In these ways.
Better than anyone, he understood the war we are in and saw the way to victory.
He understood the unfreedom — the slavery, the terror — inhering in collectivism of whatever form. He understood the crucial connection between capitalism and liberty. He understood the importance of virtue, religion and tradition in culture and society. He understood that big, welfarist, statist government, more “efficient” government, is not necessarily better or more prudent government — indeed rarely is. And he understood the first obligation of every small-r republican regime is to its people and itself — and hence the primacy of military readiness and strength.
He defined the antitheses to the foregoing paragraph as central to contemporary liberalism (see his “Up From Liberalism”). And so he saw that the fundamental enemy was not so much the logical-extension collectivism of, e.g., communism, but the liberalism that abided it and made it possible — not statism or atheism or Keynesianism or pacifism but the tolerating liberalism under which they flourished.
Finally, as Buckley understood a liberalism consisting of multiple strains, so he saw that a countervailing conservatism — to be successful, even victorious — must go beyond this or that single issue to contain all its essential strains. Still, he knew, any amalgamated conservatism would grow enervated were it ever to become an ideology (as a hence capital-l Liberalism already had become) requiring strict adherence to every item in a capital-c Conservative litany.
So this formidable, far-seeing revolutionary mounted the intellectual ramparts and poured boiling oil. His newspaper column — the first by a conservative to go beyond David Lawrence, George Sokolsky and Holmes Alexander — led to conservative dominance in writing and ideas on op-ed pages for two generations. His televised “Firing Line” far outclassed today’s network shout-shows and made possible Fox News and talk radio. His speeches, books and multitudinous writings left an effete liberalism little more than a blob of blubbering protoplasm.
Thereby, Bill Buckley galvanized conservatives into a new conservatism and — brighter, more optimistic, and more persuasive than anyone around him — made it relevant and respectable.
He rendered it victorious, too. Without him, there would have been no Barry Goldwater, no Ronald Reagan, and none of the past decades’ seismic shifts in the sociopolitical plates. Along the way he proved, among many others, the truth articulated so well by George Will — that anyone not actively conservative likely will drift left.
Now surely busy galvanizing the angels, Bill Buckley knows the principal risk today is that certain ideologized social conservatives may not rally to the conservative John McCain. And so, inviting the godawful alternative (albeit of a different sort), we would throw the hard-fought Buckley-led victory away and risk becoming — as a people and a nation — what, dismally, we used to be.