“Next to Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley was more responsible for the rise of conservatism in this country than anyone else — and that’s a very considered statement,” former Sen. Jim Talent (R., Mo.) told National Review Online on Wednesday. “He taught what conservatism was about. He did it with an élan, a humor, and a boldness that itself was an enormous example. He changed the psychological approach to politics that conservatives had.”
William F. Buckley Jr. left a world yesterday that was dramatically different for his having entered it. A great deal has been said in the last 24 hours about his influence, yet it cannot be overstated. A testament to this is the mark he left on so many of the conservatives who were motivated to run for and serve in Congress by his writings, his speeches, and the institutions he created.
“He was it,” said Rep. John Shadegg (R., Ariz.). “He was the pinnacle figure — in some ways even more so than [Sen. Barry] Goldwater, because he was the intellectual engine of the whole thing.”
“There was a myriad of different ways that National Review affected us, and Bill Buckley in particular,” said 49-year-old Rep. Tom Feeney (R., Fla.). “Like a lot of congressional conservatives, I started reading National Review when I was twelve years old. On Sundays, the only thing that could get me in from the local football or baseball field was Firing Line,” he said, referring to the television debate show that Buckley hosted for over three decades. “And much of the bibliography I read growing up was inspired by National Review. Many of us — then young conservatives just coming of age — went and picked up The Conservative Mind, we went and read Witness by Whittaker Chambers, because we knew about them from National Review.
“Before 1955, there was a disparate group of grumpy old men who made up the conservative movement,” said Feeney. “When Whittaker Chambers left the Communist side and went over to freedom and to God, he felt he was leaving the winning side of history and going to the losing side. There wasn’t much hope for the West to escape collectivism and statism. But then you had Buckley. Thanks to him, conservatism went from this dour, pessimistic attitude to become a positive and optimistic intellectual movement.”
Buckley personally touched the lives of many conservatives in Congress. Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) recalled a time in the mid-1990s when Buckley invited him to go sailing in Long Island Sound. “It was Buckley, his nephew, a boat-hand, and myself,” he said. “On the way back, Buckley suddenly says, ‘Let’s play a word game.’ It was the most embarrassing moment of my life,” Flake said, laughing. “It was like going one-on-one with Michael Jordan.”
Shadegg first met Buckley while his father was writing a biography of Clare Boothe Luce. “I asked my father, ‘Hey dad, do you think I could interview Bill Buckley for my teenage Republican club’s newsletter?’ And he agreed to it.” Shadegg has long since lost the text of the interview, which he conducted at the Luces’ home. He remembers expecting to find a man in a three-piece suit, and seeing something very different. “He climbs out of the swimming pool, wraps a towel around himself and sits down in a deck chair for the interview,” Shadegg said. Years later, Buckley would hear of Shadegg’s 1994 run for Congress and send him a check, unsolicited. He hosted a fundraiser later that year at Shadegg’s request.
For other conservative members of Congress, Buckley exerted his influence from afar. Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), began reading National Review in high school in the 1960s. To this day he keeps in his office an original first edition of God and Man at Yale, and he says that Buckley’s first book had given him hope during his years in college. “I was facing similar challenges of a liberal academic community at Washington and Lee,” he said. “It was an inspiration to me to note that, even in the early 50s, that had been a challenge.” To meet that challenge, Wilson said he bought a subscription to National Review for each of his four sons when they went to college. “I was concerned that otherwise they wouldn’t get a full picture of the issues of the day,” he said.
Buckley’s constant presence on Firing Line left a deep impression on many members. “He’d get this wry little smile, and you knew he was about to nail somebody,” said Shadegg, a faithful viewer of the program. “And you were glad you weren’t the person he was about to nail.”
“The rolling of his eyes!” Wilson exclaimed when asked what he remembered most about Firing Line. “Nobody could roll eyes quite like Buckley could roll his eyes. Sometimes they were in approval, and very frequently in shock. He didn’t even have to talk — he could just roll his eyes.”
“Before talk radio and the Internet, we were really in the wilderness,” said Feeney. “It’s something that many young conservatives today cannot begin to appreciate. But with National Review and Buckley’s books, we had a way of getting a little bit of sanity here and there. Richard Nixon declared in 1971 that we were all Keynesians. But at least we had National Review in our mailbox a week or two later reminding us that we were not, in fact, all Keynesians.”
“There were very, very, very dark days early on, when being involved in the movement was very lonely,” said Shadegg. “There was a period of time when you couldn’t say conservative things without feeling completely isolated and out of touch. But Buckley and [William] Rusher at National Review began articulating the intellectual foundation of conservatism. Goldwater took it retail, and then it became much easier to articulate conservative ideas in public.”
One of Buckley’s most important but least remembered accomplishments was his excommunication of anti-Semitic and racist elements from the conservative movement. “The fact that he did it was crucial,” said Talent, “but also the fact that he recognized the need to do it. That’s something a statesman does, and Buckley was a statesman. Who else would have had the prestige and influence, and the forensic and polemical ability to do that? And the boldness, too — because he was opening himself up to the charge of presumption. But he was William F. Buckley Jr., and that’s why he was able to do it. He exorcised the movement. And the magazine has continued to exercise that function.”
In this and other ways, Talent said, Buckley made conservative thought respectable even among those who disagreed with it. “Because he was a person of so many different tastes and interests, I think he engaged liberals on the human level,” he said. “He really made conservatism more acceptable to liberals.”
“Liberals accuse conservatives of being Neanderthals or anti-intellectual,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R.-N.C.), who at age 32 is one of the youngest members of Congress. “And here’s this erudite, sophisticated intellectual, who is Ivy League-educated, espousing what is, in essence, a message of freedom. When you saw him, you knew that he was a deep-thinking individual — the highest of intellectuals. Among other things, he was able to convey street-level conservatism to sophisticated northeastern liberals.”
As he did this, Buckley also felt he was doing liberals a service. Talent recalled an interview Buckley had given to Playboy in 1970, which Talent later read in reprint. “The way he described it, it was like we were the ones running an airport and preparing the landing strip, keeping the lights on for the liberals until they’d finally realize that that’s where they needed to land.”
Along these lines, Talent pointed to Buckley’s 1965 run for mayor of New York City, and the accompanying campaign autobiography, The Unmaking of a Mayor. “Even in 1965, he was anticipating conservatism as an actual governing philosophy.
“Buckley’s death is a tremendous loss to the movement,” said Talent. “But although I feel the sadness of it, I do not feel the bitterness, because I really do believe that he was able to complete the task he set for himself and build the institutions he built.”
“As I walk the hallways here of Congress, to see National Review being delivered to every office — whether they want it or not — that’s heartening,” said Wilson. “I can remember in the ’70s you almost had to hide that you were reading a conservative publication of any kind, let alone National Review. The younger people around me wouldn’t realize just how far we’ve come.”
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.