It was through the television that Bill Buckley first walked into my life. I was a junior in high school in Irvington, New Jersey. He was running for mayor in New York. Late one afternoon, over the evening news came that historic and hilarious press conference. Never before had I heard a candidate for anything promise to demand a recount in the event that he won. There would be other press conferences. (My favorite was the one in which he declared that the major difference between his Democratic and Republican opponents was biological rather than ideological. The Republican, John Lindsay, stood well over 6’. The Democrat, Abe Beame, barely approached 5.’)
And there would be those magnificent debates. Those were the days when candidates, rather than moderators, acted as the main draws. (To the extent that there were moderators, they were usually from the League of Women Voters or something called “Citizens’ Union.” They were always of the grandmotherly sort, with the standard uniform hat with one or more protruding feathers.) How Buckley, the writer, so enjoyed needling the two professional politicians who had condescended to share a podium with him. To their consternation, he not only stole the show, but also answered every question, and made perfect sense.
The position papers he put out could serve as a textbook on the problems of urban America. (Buckley even wrote that text.) It was not until the following spring that I discovered that I was not the only one in my town who had discovered the man we have come to know as “WFB.” On my way to a math class, I stopped to chat with Carolyn Teebo, whom I had known virtually since infancy. “Have you been following things across the river?” she inquired. “A bit,” said I. “Why do you ask?” She opened her book bag and out popped one of the first available copies of The Unmaking of a Mayor. Buckleymania had descended upon Irvington. (Democratic Party registration: nearly 110 percent. Had the town been any larger, it, like Chicago, would still be credited with stealing the 1960 election for JFK.)
I devoured the book, bought up all its predecessors, took a subscription to NR, scoured through the ten years of back issues I had missed, and began a correspondence with my hero that lasted until last year. By the time I was in college, I had become but another of a series of the “pests” who had become part of Frances Bronson’s life, often asking for a few minutes of Bill’s time. He always made time.
I will always cherish memories of attending some of the late Friday afternoon sessions when I would be invited to spend time with NR editors as yet another issue of the magazine would be “put to bed.”
Then there were those fraternity outings — no, not to ballparks and bars, but to be part of the audience at taping sessions of Firing Line. In the same afternoon, Bill called me over to meet two other legends: Robert Moses and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (A heady experience for a 20-year-old!) Bill took more than a passive interest in my various careers and in their many stages. He showed us all how to live our lives to the fullest — and how to have fun while doing it.
The most fitting way to honor his memory would be for his colleagues and admirers to do again what Buckley set out to do more than a half century ago. The time is at hand to “reinvent” contemporary conservatism so that it can continue to serve as the beacon for our great nation for the next 50 years and beyond. When WFB and his band of iconoclasts founded National Review, there were no templates for them to follow. What there had been of the old conservatism had been rendered obsolete by events: World War II and the nuclear age made the old isolationism and protectionism significantly out of date. What was needed was a new set of ideas to take their place. Buckley charted a new course, built a movement, and found a kindred spirit it helped make president.
Rather than wait for the next Reagan or debate how the last Reagan would solve contemporary problems, as too many conservatives did during the recent round of presidential primaries, the time is at hand to devise a new conservatism that is able to tackle a new set of issues that are taking on increased urgency. How might we best apply the principles of conservatism when it comes to enhancing economic competitiveness, combating global terrorism and its fanatical underpinnings, increasing border security, and stressing the importance of a common language and a shared history? WFB would have something to say about all of these. Here was a conservative who, though steeped in tradition, was always looking beyond the horizon. Well done, good friend. God Bless You.
– Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of the forthcoming The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. He shares the view that WFB’s influence exceeds that of most of the 43 subjects of this work.