Alvin S. Felzenberg
One hundred years hence, or for as long a “this last best hope on earth” endures, William F. Buckley Jr. will be remembered as the father of postwar American conservatism, the founder of National Review, and — as Ronald Reagan observed — the person who did more than any other to make the Reagan administration (and all that came to mean) possible.
If Thomas Jefferson swore “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” Buckley stood guard against both tyranny and “moral equivalency.” He knew that the watering down of “eternal truths” that have withstood the tests of time facilitated the advance of tyranny in free societies.
Aware that any movement’s adversaries define it by the weakest link in its chain, Buckley acted to keep his free of the influence of extremists and conspiracy theorists. He considered his successes his greatest achievement. In order to attain it, Buckley was wiling to lose readers, donors, fans, and subscribers. “National Review is not for sale,” he told a benefactor, who urged him to spend his time attacking liberals instead of anti-Communists, whatever their peculiar quirks.
Buckley reminded his followers that how something is attained may matter more in the long run than what is achieved, however meritorious particular policies might be. He would award higher priority to constitutional norms, the separation of powers, and checks and balances than to programmatic policies he favored.
Like Madison, Buckley insisted that the legislative, and not the executive branch, was the pre-eminent branch of the United States government. Both knew that whenever one branch encroaches on the prerogatives and powers of the others, the people’s liberties diminish. He knew that neither the Left nor the Right held a monopoly on the “imperial presidency.”
Finally, Buckley carried with him into the public square a civility and a wit that are all but absent there today. He gave conservatism a happy face. When Time put Buckley on its cover in 1967, the caption that ran under his name read: “Conservatism can be fun.” While we shall not see his like again, we will long take inspiration from his example.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.
Edwin J. Feulner
Bill Buckley was sui generis: master of the spoken and written word; founder of institutions that outlive him; unheralded supporter of many individuals and organizations; political trendsetter; congenital optimist who led the way for so many to follow; while remaining a man of deep personal faith and belief.
Imagine a world without Bill Buckley’s presence for all those decades, and his continuing legacy: No National Review, still America’s pre-eminent journal of sensible thinking and analysis; no institutions of the Right ranging from Young America’s Foundation to the Philadelphia Society; and none of the thousands of next generation followers who have made their individual marks in myriad ways to promote freedom around the world.
Ever the defender of the permanent things, Bill Buckley reminds us that real conservatism is based on tradition and the cumulative wisdom of those on whose shoulders we stand.
While he was reluctant to provide a final definition of conservatism, he offered himself as a definition, admitting he was dependent on human freedom, not as an end, but as a means — to “live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.”
What a legacy William F. Buckley Jr. has left for us to celebrate and to emulate. May he rest in eternal peace with the Lord.
— Dr. Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and retired president of the Heritage Foundation.
Neal B. Freeman
I met William F. Buckley Jr. the same way everybody else met him back in the early, pre-celebrity days. Something I had written caught his eye and he invited me to a lavish and wine-soaked dinner.
There were four of us there that first night. WFB, I, his wife Patricia, and National Review publisher William Rusher. The conversation was lively. And then engaging. And then engrossing. Along about ten o’clock, Bill Rusher, a man of iron habit, excused himself and went home. Along about one o’clock, Patsy, a harried young mother, excused herself and went upstairs to bed. Along about dawn, I excused myself and walked downtown to my day job. As we parted, WFB and I agreed to continue the conversation, which we did for the next 45 years.
What was the attraction? Why did I find Bill Buckley so mesmerizing? It was a dog whistle. When he was asked what he intended to do with his little magazine, he would flash that lupine grin and say, “We intend to change the world.” People of a certain age would chuckle, pat him on the arm, and say, “Why of course you do, young man.” We young people, those of us with idealism awakened and ambition beginning to stir, heard a very different message. And we responded very differently: We said first to ourselves and then to each other, “Bill says he wants to change the world. I think he might just do it and I’d like to help.” Well, he did, and some of us like to think we helped.
What set him apart — what elevated him above the puff and posture of his long day on the public stage — was not the ocean cruising or the harpsichord playing or the tap-dancing at charity balls. Those were the acts of a magician, the shiny distraction from the real business at hand. What made him singular was the white heat of philosophical conviction. As a brand-name liberal journalist once said to me, wonderingly, after a TV joust, “That Buckley, damn, he really means it.” Indeed, he did. All of it.
Will we see WFB’s like again? Of course we will. This is America. At least, that’s what WFB always said about the good and the great recently departed.
— Neal B. Freeman, a former National Review editor and columnist and the founding producer of Firing Line, is the author of Skirmishes.
I suspect that many of Bill Buckley’s friends will respond as I do when confronted with the fact that ten years have passed since Bill’s death. “That’s impossible,” I say to myself. “It cannot have been ten years since that fateful morning when Linda Bridges called to tell me the news. It seems like something that happened only months ago.”
How much has bubbled up between then and now: Barack Obama came and went. Donald Trump has come and stayed. Amazing. And yet how easy it is to fold back that decade in one’s mind, erasing the months and controversies. Perhaps this Sunday my wife and I will once again go to Mass with Bill in Stamford and then repair to Wallack’s Point for some music followed by drinks and 60 Minutes. I know that is not to be, but I can so easily imagine it happening. “What is time?” St. Augustine famously asked in his Confessions. “Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know.” So it is with thinking about Bill from the vantage of 2018. So much time has passed, and yet he seems as present as yesterday or tomorrow (never, alas, today).
How often have have I wondered “What would Bill have said about this? What would he have written about that?” Twitter started in 2006, before Bill’s death, but it had yet to sweep the world. What would he have made of it? Bill’s fondness for gadgets was legendary, but there were limits. I once gave him a Blackberry smartphone. He was delighted to get it but after a couple of weeks gave it back because he just couldn’t get the hang of it. All those little buttons. The iPhone debuted in the summer of 2007, again before Bill’s death but not in time to make an impression. Perhaps he would have taken to the device. Can we imagine Bill tweeting? Opinions vary.
And what would he have made of our Tweeter-in-Chief? The only column I know of Bill’s about Trump was highly critical. But then there are those 2000 names in the Boston phone book. The question, I suspect, is imponderable. But Bill’s unstoppable habits of curiosity and engagement make me think that a guarded affirmation would have been possible. It is another reason for sadness that we will never know.
— Roger Kimball is editor of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books.
I will use my half-acre of space to say a few personal things. That’s a Buckley phrase: “half-acre of space.”
He comes to my thought every day, I suppose — certainly every other day. I don’t will him there; he just comes. Often, it’s a word, or a phrase, such as “half-acre of space.”
Over the weekend, I heard a performance in Carnegie Hall (Vienna Philharmonic under Dudamel). I thought, “Insuperably dull.” Bill once used that phrase in discussing a book. It was insuperably dull (which is dull, baby).
I have often said that Bill didn’t teach me what to think but how to think. He gave you a cast of mind.
The other day, I was reading a story out of Hungary, which said that the government had spent some 93 million euros on anti-Soros posters and TV ads. I thought, “Are you sure 83 million wouldn’t have been enough?” That is a Buckleyan formulation.
I once heard him say, “All I want in life is for my printer to work.” I’ll sometimes think, “All I want in life is . . .” — the need of the moment. Could be a chocolate-chip cookie (often is).
Something will happen, and I’ll want to tell him about it. He would send e-mails with the Subject heading “Pour t’amuser” — “to amuse you.” This makes you want to amuse him back, so to speak. He was the kind to appreciate your appreciations.
“Let’s do something offbeat,” he once said. So we departed from the routine. (This had to do with restaurants.) I will sometimes say that, to another or to myself: “Let’s do something offbeat” (much as I like routine).
“Say something interesting!” he would sometimes demand. “Say something provocative!” You’d want to oblige. It was usually he who said the interesting, provocative, or memorable thing.
Once, he wasn’t going to some affair and felt kind of guilty about it. I said, “Oh, don’t worry, haven’t you been to enough of these things? You’ve earned a night off.” He said, “Yes, but who will be clever?”
When you got Bill, you got not just him but his circle, which was vast: people from many walks of life and many political stripes. His world was wide, and he widened yours, too. The world seems a bit smaller now, somehow.
I miss him politically, big-time. Personally? Yes, maybe, but he’s never really gone.
— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review.
Bill Buckley’s legacy looks less secure than it did ten years ago, when he died. Fusionism is still a going concern: The fact that a Republican Congress and president have been cutting taxes and putting originalists on the bench is proof enough of that success. The alliance between traditionalists and free-marketeers endures.
But that alliance is not accomplishing much, which is both cause and effect of the recrudescence of a number of pathologies. The Right has fallen back into the temptation to conspiracy theory that marked its pre-Buckley days. The Right has also abandoned Buckley’s ambition to prove that conservatism, and conservatives, could be intelligent, urbane, witty, and sociable — an ambition that many of today’s right-wingers seem to regard as born in weakness and doomed to failure. I am not sure what Bill’s overall judgment of President Trump would be, but I am more confident about which aspects of the current moment he would celebrate and deplore.
He would do both in a mood of cheerful pessimism. At NR’s tenth-anniversary dinner—a year after Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat, days after Buckley’s defeat in the New York City mayoral election—Bill paraphrased T. S. Eliot: “There are no lost causes because there are no gained causes.” (Conservatives have always needed bucking up.) Eliot continued, “We know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.”
We will see how well the alternative fares. Buckley’s version of conservatism is not thriving, but it is not a lost cause either.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.