The Magazine

A Christian Gentleman

Joseph Bottum on Buckley.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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In photographs from those days, the young William F. Buckley Jr. of the 1950s always seemed to have his legs stretched out--his feet up on a nearby chair, or a pile of books, or an open desk drawer. Slumped down, the phone squeezed to his ear by his shoulder, his fingers twiddling a pencil, he looked both involved and distant, caught up in the moment and a little bit removed, self-absorbed, and self-ironic: a 30-year-old man with a fairly clear idea of what his talent was worth and what it wasn't. He always seemed to be doing what he did and something more besides.

Perhaps that more is the key for understanding the man, who died last week at the age of 82. Obituary after obituary spoke of the tools he had used to help create the modern conservative movement: his compelling voice, his eloquent speeches, his good looks, his family wealth. As it happens, his voice wasn't really resonant; he talked through his teeth too much, the words all formed in the front of his mouth and pushed out by an act of will. For that matter, he wasn't classically eloquent; he often phrased things to draw attention to his phrasings, and from the beginning of his career to the end he fancied long words solely for the sake of his fancy. He wasn't even handsome, in truth: his grin lopsided, his eyes too small and too sleepy, his face somehow seeming to be wrapped further around his skull than it needed to be.

The money was real enough, and his wife Patricia's money (from a Vancouver lumber and mining fortune) was even realer. In 1955, his father could afford to give him $100,000--about $750,000 in today's money--to help start National Review, but even there the family wealth was less than a truly great fortune. The Buckleys were not the Rockefellers; they were just very rich people who had passed beyond the need to work for their bread, and the money mostly existed in William F. Buckley's life as yet another instrument by which he lived always in some way more.

What he did, in effect, was roll together his odd elocution, his elaborate vocabulary, his interesting looks, and his patrician background to create one of the great acts on the 20th-century American public stage. Look, for instance, at the photographs and film clips of the improvisational theater that was his 1965 race for mayor of New York--the campaign he entered when, after the Conservative party he had helped found offered him the nomination, he said, "I looked at it and thought, What the hell, this is kind of interesting."

During the race, he proved wittier and more fascinating, more of a genuine figure, than anyone in New York politics since Fiorello LaGuardia a generation before, and he seemed to fill the room during the campaign's televised debates: larger, cleverer, and sharper than his opponents could ever be. Oh, certainly, he was defeated without much difficulty; the New York audience didn't actually vote for him--but they did love watching him, and John Lindsay's chances of national success as a liberal Republican died in that campaign, eviscerated by Buckley's cool conservative critique.

Even his later account, The Unmaking of a Mayor--by far his best book--doesn't explain fully why he entered the race in 1965. In the end, the cause may have been nothing other than his constant desire to do something more. At the time, Buckley was 40 years old and National Review had been up and running for 10 years. With the wipeout of Barry Goldwater the previous fall, and Ronald Reagan's election as governor of California still over a year in the future, the way forward for the movement he was shepherding was not obvious. He seemed to want some new project to add to his already overfull life. His performance during the campaign was a revelation, and it set up his next great performance, as the host of the televised interview program Firing Line, which began in 1966. He wasn't always cool and collected. In a famous exchange on national television in 1968, he threatened to sock Gore Vidal in the face--"and you'll stay plastered"--for calling him a crypto-Nazi. But the effect of Buckley's star power was to give a cool look to conservatism and form the modern image of an intellectual movement.

His role as the great impresario of American conservatism has been well celebrated in his obituaries and the long tour of honors and farewell dinners with which he marked his final years. His role as the gatekeeper, too: banishing the John Birchers and the followers of Ayn Rand to the political fringe, and rooting out the remnants of a European-style anti-Semitic conservatism. (His long essay in National Review in 1991, "In Search of Anti-Semitism," remains his definitive statement.)