He was right.
When my son was born and still in search of a name, “Buckley” ended up coming in the middle, both as homage to the modern conservative movement’s founding genius, and as the kind of avatar you vaguely hope will bestow attributes of character upon your children.
Next to Reagan’s passing, this one was personal. He was supposed to live forever.
“WFB” was one of the great thinkers of the 20th Century and, with Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, one of the four conservatives with the greatest impact on our 21st Century world, just as Freud, Marx and Darwin wreaked havoc on the 20th century by their diabolical work in the 19th. If we are to save our nation in this century from the current drive to Socialism and/or public/private/partnership Fascism, it will be, at least in large measure, part of the legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr.
As many already know, I came to conservatism as the result of a search for philosophical reality largely informed by thinkers for whom politics was a secondary concern, including C.S. Lewis, Bill Gothard and Richard Wurmbrand. I came to conservatism already largely pre-grounded in the ideals of Judeo Christian thought that have anchored the center of Western Civilization since its founding and came to highest expression in our nation. William F. Buckley was the first and one of the only men from the political realm who actually taught me anything (philosophically, that is, I have learned a great deal from many people, historically and strategically).
It was by reading Buckley, in the seventies, that I saw clearly for the first time that political freedom, that is, the right to choose one’s own government and to speak and publish for that purpose, was only one small part of the bundle of important freedoms, and that it, far from being the lynchpin of Liberty, was, perhaps the least important of our freedoms. For if we have the right to elect leaders, but all our choices (like Socialists and Environmentalists) uniformly extract our other freedoms (like property and enterprise) we are less free for having chosen them. Slaves would be slaves even it they got to choose who their owner would be. But great societies (more free than our own has become) have flourished under kings who never faced election, yet recognized the proper mandate and limits of their government. They don’t teach this in the schools.
William F. Buckley did not define conservatism as Barack Obama will now define liberalism (or as some erroneously think Reagan defined the conservative wing of the GOP), by dictating it from some star status gained by charisma. But Buckley did define conservatism. It was not because we became his worshipers through his books, nor his television show, Firing Line, nor the great publication he founded in 1955, The National Review. It was because he simply won the debates.
And did he ever.
Buckley in debate was like Rembrandt with a paintbrush, like Bach at the keyboard of a great Cathedral pipe organ, like Muhammad Ali, in his prime, with the gloves on, dancing.
He debated great intellects and toyed with them, exposing the flaws in their reasoning, circumscribing their command of facts with an astounding specificity and historical perspective, outflanking them in their own field of expertise, effortlessly. And his sense of humor was bright, incisive, rapier-like and hilarious. It was a thing of beauty to watch.
There are special-effect scenes in modern films (Kill Bill comes to mind) where a warrior swings his sword so swiftly the strokes are invisible and so sharply that his opponent’s body has been dismembered a second or two before it can be detected. You see the poor victim standing there as if nothing at all has happened – until he, literally, falls to pieces.
Buckley could do this with a few words.
We are so concerned to flatter the majority that we lose sight of how very often it is necessary, in order to preserve freedom for the minority, let alone for the individual, to face that majority down. – WFB
It did not appear to require bravery for Buckley to be courageous, standing against the popular tide, because he appeared to have no fears to begin with. He joined the Council on Foreign Relations for the sole purpose of disproving the operative notion that men could be weighed by their associations alone. It is said Christ faced the same issue (Matthew 11:19). And he was well ahead of the curve when, in July of 2006, prior to the electoral debacle the GOP Left would bring us that year, he pointed out, publicly, that a sitting Republican President was not a conservative. Buckley did not mind standing in the minority, on principle, even in the GOP.
Buckley was the sixth child in a Catholic family that had ten. As such he is a grand exhibit in the debate over whether or not large families “hurt the younger children.” He not only graduated, with honors, from Yale, but wrote the most famous critique of that university in history, while still barely a graduate, at twenty five years of age (Of God and Man at Yale).
When pressed for a definition of conservatism I have often used one I heard Buckley give: “a convergence of essences toward which the whole of the universe is in continuing approximation.” Mr. Buckley is now in full convergence with those essences.
He was, in many ways, our father. He was a fearless warrior in the battles for truth and for the freedom of our nation. He was a Giant among conservatives. And he was a certainly a saint (at least in the Protestant sense).