EDITOR’S NOTE: In the new book William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement (ISI Books), historian Lee Edwards provides a much-needed intellectual biography of this towering figure. Edwards, who knew Bill Buckley for more than 40 years, reminds readers of the ideas that animated WFB and propelled the rise of the modern conservative movement. In this excerpt, Edwards discusses the relationship between Buckley and Ronald Reagan, and how together they led the conservative movement during the dark days of the 1970s.
Wherever he was — in New Guinea; in Gstaad, Switzerland; or at his home in Stamford, Connecticut — Bill Buckley kept his eye on the state of the conservative movement, including and most especially the political fortunes of Ronald Reagan. The two conservatives had first met in January 1961, when Reagan, then the host of the popular television program GE Theater, was to introduce Buckley to an assembly of mostly doctors and their wives at a Los Angeles high school. However, it was discovered that the microphone was dead, and the control room at the rear of the hall was locked. As the audience grew increasingly restless at the delay of the program, Reagan decided to take remedial action.
The future president walked to the side of the hall and looked through the window at the ledge running the length of the building some two stories above traffic. He slipped out the window and with his back to the wall sidestepped carefully on the parapet toward the control-room window. Reaching it, he broke the glass with his elbow and disappeared into the control room. “In a minute there was light in the upstairs room,” Buckley later wrote, “and then we could hear the crackling of the newly animated microphone.”
For Buckley, Reagan’s movements that night were a “nifty allegory of his approach to foreign policy” — the calm appraisal of a situation, the willingness to take risks, and then the decisive moment “leading to lights and sound — and music, the music of the spheres.”
The Yale University graduate and the Eureka College alumnus had much in common: Each was tall (Reagan 6′1″, Buckley 6′2″), handsome, ambitious, a gifted speaker with a ready wit, an inveterate reader with an abiding interest in ideas, and a star in his profession. Each was a committed conservative — Reagan the zealous convert from liberalism, Buckley the cradle conservative. Each had a strong libertarian streak and viewed government as almost always the problem, not the solution. (One of the earliest and most important influences on Buckley was the libertarian author and social critic Albert Jay Nock.) Each was a fierce anti-Communist who believed that you could only trust the Communists to be Communists — although Reagan would come to believe that you could trust some Communists if you carefully verified their actions. A close friendship developed, reinforced by Nancy Reagan’s warm approval of Bill Buckley and his wife, Pat, who knew many of the same socially prominent New Yorkers she did.
There was a significant intellectual difference between the two conservatives: Buckley’s innate skepticism — deepened by the influence of former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers and National Review senior editor James Burnham — about the possibility of altering the course of history contrasted with Reagan’s sunny belief that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”