William F. Buckley died this week at the age of 82. He was, among other things, the founder of National Review (my professional home for the last decade), architect and leader of the modern American conservative movement, host of Firing Line (where he was the longest-serving television host in history), renowned author of some 50 books — which included spy novels, political polemics, histories, biographies, sailing memoirs and countless animadversions of an acutely sesquipedalian flavor, as the peripatetic proselytizer of polysyllabism might say — harpsichord recitalist, syndicated columnist, esteemed lecturer (he gave some 70 speeches a year for decades), adventurer, father of acclaimed novelist and journalist Christopher Buckley and husband to philanthropist Patricia Buckley, one-time New York City mayoral candidate (when asked what he would do if he won, he responded, “Demand a recount”), mentor to countless young conservatives and inspiration to millions more.
In short, his life was richer and more packed than an overburdened sentence, such as the above.
In the inaugural issue of National Review, he set out to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.”
That rallying cry has always earned the scorn of liberals and leftists who believe in their bones that they are the servants of Progress, and that Progress is something you can’t stand in the way of. (Alas, it has also elicited rolling eyes and titters from a new generation of self-described “compassionate conservatives” who believe that the government is there to love you.)
Still, it was the Marxists who best articulated this conviction that with every page ripped from the calendar, humanity was closer to the ideal of universal collective endeavor. They spoke of cold impersonal forces of history moving inexorably toward a utopia where, it just so happened, people like them would be in charge.
But Marxism was merely one expression of this conviction, which had stained the American soul well before Buckley was born. For example, in 1892, James Baird Weaver, the Populist Party’s presidential nominee, spoke for coming generations of Progressives, reformers and activists when he proclaimed, “We have tried to show that competition is largely a thing of the past. Every force of our industrial life is hurrying on the age of combination. It is useless to try to stop the current.”
A generation later, Harry Garfield, the president of Williams College and director of Woodrow Wilson’s Fuel Administration, giddily announced: “We have come to a parting of the ways, we have come to the time when the old individualistic principle must be set aside.” Now, he gushed, “we must boldly embark upon the new principle of cooperation and combination.”
In 1932, Stuart Chase, the man who reportedly coined the phrase “The New Deal,” lamented that the Russians were having all the fun remaking the world. New Dealers spoke of creating a new “religion of government” whereby citizens took it on faith that collectivism was the natural order.
By the mid 1940s, no less than Franklin Roosevelt insisted that the old Bill of Rights, which denied the government the power to meddle in the affairs of men, should be supplanted by a new “economic Bill of Rights” that would hasten the historical rush to collectivism.
When Buckley graduated from Yale, he penned a blistering critique of his alma mater, complaining that it had come to take this collectivist tide for granted, particularly since Yale had abandoned Godly faith in favor of the cold, impersonal forces that seem to go hand-in-hand with atheism (perhaps because those who believe that God is dead consequently believe that man must play God to his fellow men).
Just the year before, renowned literary critic Lionel Trilling had proclaimed in The Liberal Imagination that, “in the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Conservative impulses, he insisted, “do not express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
This, then, was the History — with a capital H, bequeathed to it by Hegel and Marx and a thousand other false prophets — that Buckley set about to stand athwart, and eventually to thwart. For Buckley and his band of happy warriors, collectivism in its brutal forms in the Soviet Union was anathema, but collectivism in its genteel form here at home was also folly. “You cannot paint the Mona Lisa by assigning one dab each to a thousand painters,” Buckley said.
In his battle with those who believed the Earth moved in one direction, he was the Hercules pitted against the Atlas of collectivism. Few were more successful in the battle. He did not merely “part the Red Sea,” as Ronald Reagan once told him, “you rolled it back.”
There were so many facets to Buckley’s talents, it seems absurd to try to sum them up. A joyous heart, an omnivorous mind, a fearless stomach for battle: this was the anatomy of “WFB.” There will never be another. He was, as he might say were he not so modest, a hapax legomenon in the book of life.
– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.
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