If you were running one of those Frank Luntz machine-wired focus groups to produce the ideal conservative leader for America, I doubt you’d come up with an urbane patrician harpsichordist semi-resident in Switzerland and partial to words like “eremitical” and “periphrastic.” “It’s the epigoni, stupid” is not a useful campaign slogan — although, in fact, a distressingly large number of political candidates are certainly epigoni (“a second-rate imitator”). But William F. Buckley Jr. was a first-rate original, who founded the modern conservative movement half a century ago, and saw it through to victory in the 1980 presidential election and then to vindication in the collapse of Communism a decade later. He would demur when credited with “creating” the entire show but he was certainly its impresario, and at a time when there wasn’t exactly a lot of talent stampeding to audition.
The 1950s are assumed, at least by children of the Sixties, to be a “conservative” era. But at home New Deal liberalism controlled all the levers of society and abroad the Communists had gobbled up half of Europe, neutered most of the rest, swiped China, were eyeing up other valuable real estate across the planet, and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment was inclined to accept this as a permanent feature of life to be “managed” rather than defeated. The Republican minority in Congress were isolationists or country-club liberals, and their presidential nominees were “moderates” like Dewey or non-partisans like Ike. There was virtually no serious intellectual energy in American conservatism. The notion that in the early 21st century more Americans would identify themselves as “conservatives” than as “liberals” would have struck the elites of 50 years ago as preposterous: a scenario unimaginable outside the more fanciful dystopian science fiction. I’m always reminded of a couplet by Alan Jay Lerner, a Kennedy classmate from Choate and a quintessential limousine liberal, skewering Republican discontents in the Thirties: “Those parties at Mimsie’s, you’d find me wherever the bar was Where everyone said what a sonofabitch FDR was.”
That was what Republicans did: They whined ineffectively.
Then Bill Buckley showed up and was brilliantly effective. In the barren soil of the Fifties, he planted what became a mighty family tree that includes not just Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan but millions of other Americans. I’ve been amazed in recent days by the number of e-mails I’ve received from readers retelling essentially the same story across the decades: Buckley came to their college in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, or Nineties, and the scales fell from their eyes. Or they were in the local library and found a stray copy of something called “National Review” that had somehow managed to penetrate the perimeter fence. Or they were flipping through the channels late at night and stumbled across this cool guy with a pencil effortlessly eviscerating some liberal panjandrum.
Buckley’s Firing Line offered real debate. Not the effete insipid format-choked epigoni we witness every presidential-campaign season beginning with some compromise moderator laboriously explaining that under the painstakingly negotiated rules each candidate will make a two-minute opening statement, after which a randomly chosen rival will offer a 45-second rebuttal, followed by the original candidate’s 30-second pre-rebuttal of the next candidate’s re-rebuttal, followed by, etc, etc. On Firing Line, Bill Buckley and his guests just had at it. His insouciant bravura demonstrated week in, week out that conservatism didn’t have to be clunky and squaresville, but could take on all comers with tremendous style.
I’m sure even now some New York Times type is tutting that Buckley’s movement has fallen into the hands of vulgar bullies like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who lack his dash and élan. As it happens, back in 2000 some fellow in the San Francisco Chronicle made exactly that point about a lout called Steyn disfiguring Buckley’s National Review. But, in reality, Bill was, as he would say, the fons et origo of a conservatism that came out swinging — sometimes literally, as in a famous TV encounter of 1968. “As far as I am concerned,” drawled Gore Vidal, “the only crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” “Now listen, you queer,” replied Buckley. “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Indeed. And, if “You Nazi!”/”You queer!” isn’t exactly up there with Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward in the devastating repartee rankings, well, Vidal started it, and Bill’s epithet, unlike Gore’s, at least has the merit of being true. The idea that William F. Buckley represents a civilized conservatism lost to uncouth savages will no doubt become received wisdom in the same way that, upon his death, Ronald Reagan’s success was universally ascribed by the media to an avuncular geniality wholly alien to the vengeful knuckledraggers of the Bush era. But Bill was lethal with opponents on the opposite team and on his own side, dispatching a liberal Republican like his own Senator, Lowell Weicker, to the trash can of history and purging conservatism of its crackpots so thoroughly that conspiracy theories, principally a hallmark of the right in the Fifties, were by the Sixties the more or less sole province of the left, where they’ve remained ever since.
In his speech at the National Review 50th-anniversary gala, he did me the great honor of reading out a passage of mine from the birthday issue that happened to have tickled his fancy. I am a considerably less elegant writer and listening to Bill reading my rough-and-tumble prose in his languid vowels was a bit like hearing Maria Callas sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” But the column he gave me in his magazine is called “Happy Warrior,” and we have at least that in common: He was a very happy warrior, a great twinkling beamer full of merriment who relished taking on the conventional opinions of a complacent establishment against all the odds. Forty-nine years ago, he wrote, “We must bring down the thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent, and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable.” It is an unending struggle because, while the facts of life are conservative (as his friend Margaret Thatcher put it), liberalism is eternally seductive. But, as they will tell you in the capitals of post-Communist Eastern Europe, the world is better off because William F. Buckley Jr. stood athwart history and changed its course.
© 2008 Mark Steyn