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When the larger-than-life William F. Buckley Jr. — founder of the magazine I love and the movement to which I am devoted — died while working in his study on February 27, he left behind a thriving conservative movement.
You might think I’m crazy for using the word “thriving.” I don’t particularly blame you. After all, didn’t Newsweek just announce with a “There Will Be Blood” cover that talk-radio hosts on the Right are (supposedly) hopelessly devoted to destroying the Republican nominee for president? Didn’t conservatives just fail in an over-hyped quest for “the next Ronald Reagan”? Haven’t some popular right-leaning op-ed writers and talking heads been going for the jugular for months now, complaining about a “talk radio mafia,” admonishing political and ideological teammates to “grow up,” quit the “temper tantrum,” and support Arizona Republican John McCain for president?
Sure, that’s all true. It’s not always a happy family on the Right side of the political spectrum. But those vital signs aren’t exactly indicative of a stagnant movement.
On the contrary, the Republican presidential primary (which, for all purposes, has been over since Mitt Romney dropped out at the beginning of February) was bursting with conservative life. As I was wrapping Christmas presents, colleagues were calling to ask, “Did you hear what Rush said today?” The undisputed king of talk radio was criticizing McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee for their statist tendencies, while praising Fred Thompson and ultimately embracing Romney for conservative policies and uplifting rhetoric about American exceptionalism.
Rush Limbaugh may not have “won” in the end, inasmuch as McCain wasn’t his preferred candidate, but he also wasn’t betting on a horserace. He was simply reflecting conservative principles. He was doing what he does every day: applying his basic political philosophy to real-life, real-time politics.
He was asking himself, “What would WFB do?”
In a conversation with Limbaugh a few months back, talking about issues long- and short-term, he advised that that’s exactly the question everyone who calls himself a conservative should be asking. Not because we’re unrealistically deifying our now-deceased friend and mentor, Buckley — as some have accused conservatives of doing with Ronald Reagan — but because Buckley was a founder, practitioner, and teacher of this thing we call conservatism. It’s the question his speeches, columns, magazine, and books sought to answer. What is Right here?
Buckley was never a Republican-party man so much as he was a conservative, always thinking about fundamental principles. So if Republicans in general or one Republican candidate in particular veered off course, it was his role to point that out; to criticize, publicly or privately; to offer guides for the practical application of that philosophy. In other words, what Limbaugh routinely does on his radio show — and what writers at National Review try to do from their laptops. It’s what thinking conservatives do — whether on a blog site, at a think tank, or inside a Capitol Hill office.
Conservatives are forever accused of being backward. We are supposedly anti-science because we’ve opposed the most radical remaking of humanity through biotechnology — opposing human cloning and federal funding of research that destroys human embryos. We’re accused of being anti-sex because we encourage personal responsibility, self-respect, and the quaint old notion of marriage. We’re accused of wanting Africans to die because we prefer private organizations to do the holistic charity work that works best, rather than shoveling money at failed government-preferred condom-and-forget-it approaches to fighting AIDS. Ideas have consequences; and government efforts to radically reconstruct human society — and even to redefine human nature itself — are arrogant ideas with predictably disastrous consequences, that need to be opposed. We’re trying to do what WFB did. As he wrote in his publisher’s statement in the first issue of National Review, we’re “standing athwart History, yelling ‘Stop!’ ”
Bill Buckley and the conservative movement won the Cold War. Bill Buckley, conservatives, and conservative-leaning “New” Democrats reformed the social-welfare state that was a poison to America’s families. Bill Buckley has inspired three generations of conservatives, now with a string of proven successes under our belts. And we have work to do still: We’ve got a new enemy to defeat, that’s hit us at home — and not far from National Review’s offices in both New York and Washington. We’ve got policy battles, even among ourselves on the Right, but we’re alive and kicking. And the words that Buckley wrote in the first issue of National Review are as true today as they were then, “we offer, besides ourselves, a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D’s in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.”
So don’t confuse the death of a legend who left a rich legacy with the end of conservatism. Those of us who read, listened to, and learned from William F. Buckley Jr. are prepared for the work we have to do. We are all the next Reagans and Buckleys; Reagan and Buckley did what their talents and beliefs required of them — albeit with remarkable reserves of talent. Miles have gone by for conservatism, but there are miles to go yet. And so we stand athwart history, in print, on radio, in the hallowed halls of Congress, sometimes in the White House, on television, and now, online, 24/7.
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