Politics & Policy

Where There’s a Will, There’s Bill Buckley

The Right side of Washington remembers.

The passing of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. has inspired an outpouring of testaments to his life and achievements in Washington. Though Buckley was the quintessential New Yorker, his métier was politics and his reputation always loomed large over the capital city where, in addition to politicians, the city’s foremost journalists and opinion makers revered Buckley’s insight.

George Will was unequivocal in his assessment of Buckley’s political influence. “It seems to me by any sensible reckoning, he’s the most consequential American journalist ever,” Will told National Review Online Wednesday. Though many political intellectuals come and go, Will noted, Buckley’s ideas and contributions to the conservative movement didn’t merely drive political debate — Buckley changed the course of the nation’s political history.

“Before Reagan there had to be Goldwater, before Goldwater there had to be the National Review, before the National Review there had to be Bill Buckley. Under his editorship, National Review did something the Hearst papers never did — which is determine a presidential nomination,” Will said.

Buckley’s influence is also particularly felt in the shaping of Washington’s preeminent think tanks and policy shops. Prior to Buckley, postwar America was in the thrall of New Deal progressivism and conservative ideas were practically nonexistent in academic and policy debates. It’s now observed only half-jokingly that the building where the American Enterprise Institute is located in Washington houses more conservative intellectuals than most European nations.

Chris DeMuth, president of AEI for over 20 years, also noted the significance of Buckley’s life in relation to the conservative movement. “The source of Bill Buckley’s greatness was his completeness. He not merely led the conservative movement, he created it, and he did so by coupling a rigorous political program with religious, cultural, and stylistic example,” DeMuth said. “Conservatism cannot be fully rationalized: It must also be embodied, personified. No other man could have done this as Buckley did — activist and quietist, intellectual and convivial, exuberant and dark. He knew the abyss (go back and reread Stained Glass), which was the font of his gaiety.”

Karl Rove, arguably the most distinguished political strategist of the modern era, also noted that Buckley resurrected conservatism in a way that has had lasting and undeniable historical consequences.

“We have lost a mighty writer, thinker, debater, and advocate who made it respectable to be a conservative at a time when conservatism’s obituary had already been written. He was a warrior for the timeless values of freedom and liberty and an inspiration to generations who read his work, watched his appearances, and cheered his quixotic charges into the political arena,” Rove said. “Conservatives owe this great man a debt for intellectual leadership that rescued our movement and helped produce the conservative moments and figures that mark modern America and the world.”

Prominent Catholic intellectual George Weigel, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted that Buckley was influential largely because his political opinions were informed by the strength of his personal faith. In turn, Buckley was able to shape the role of religion in the public square for the better. “Bill Buckley may have been the most publicly consequential American Catholic of the 20th century; he’s certainly in any serious list of the top five,” Weigel said.

Journalist and former White House press secretary Tony Snow stressed that Buckley’s human touch was responsible for much of his influence.

“Bill Buckley made tremendous contributions to the conservative movement by virtue of his intellect, his wit, his determination, and, most of all, his compassion,” Snow said. “Few men in public life were as generous with their time, encouragement, and praise.”

Snow noted that it was in fact Buckley who initiated the friendship between the two of them. “Bill reached out to many of us early in our careers and gave the benefit of his experience — and, most of all, his enormous heart. It was always humbling and thrilling to get a call from Bill. You never quite felt that you deserved it. But you always felt that you were the recipient of a very special gift.”

Snow further observed that Buckley’s imposing reputation didn’t get in the way of his personal warmth. “People tend to have this image of Bill as the television figure, the fellow with the enormous vocabulary,” Snow said. “He was really just one of those folks you never forget and when you do remember him, you always do it with a smile on your face.”

— Mark Hemingway is a NRO staff reporter.

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