Here's one measure of the man and the scope of his achievement: No serious historian will be able to write about 20th-century America without discussing Bill Buckley. Before Buckley, there was no conservative movement. After Buckley, there was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the most important American political figure of the latter half of the 20th century. No one was more central to his emergence and success than Bill Buckley.
It was not just a happy coincidence that Buckley, in the course of promoting conservatism, also helped his country. It's true that he saw in conservatism a set of doctrines that transcended any one nation, or any one time, and that approached the status of political, even metaphysical, truths. But Buckley wasn't embarrassed to view his conservatism as being in the service of his patriotism, and to see in the conservative movement a means of defending our country and of defending freedom. Indeed, because of the debilities of postwar liberalism, conservatism had to take as its task the defense of Western civilization itself. And so it did.
A few years ago, Charles Kesler called attention in these pages to Buckley's explanation of the "basic assumption" behind his bestselling Blackford Oakes spy novels:
that the survival of everything we cherish depends on the survival of the culture of liberty; and that this hangs on our willingness to defend this extraordinary country of ours, so awfully mixed up, so much of the time; so schizophrenic in its understanding of itself and its purposes; so crazily indulgent of its legion of wildly ungovernable miscreants--to defend it at all costs. With it all, this idealistic republic is the finest bloom of nationhood in all recorded time, and save only that God may decide that the land of the free and the home of the brave has outrun its license on history, we Americans must contend, struggle, and if necessary fight for America's survival.
And so Buckley himself fought.
Many of the tributes have emphasized his charm and civility, his generosity and decency--all qualities he had in spades. But Buckley was also a fighter. From the beginning, he wasn't deterred by the extraordinary odds against him. Early on, he beat back crude attempts to deligitimize his efforts. And after he had established enough of a beachhead that frontal assaults against conservatism couldn't succeed, he parried subsequent efforts to weaken his forces or blunt their effect. Buckley fought through to victory--to as great a victory as was possible.
He preferred to use his rapier-like wit, but he could pull out the heavy artillery when he needed to. In a letter to Willmoore Kendall, the philosopher Leo Strauss once referred admiringly to Buckley's "great power of invective." Buckley, in one column, could combine captivating charm with ferocious polemic--and this combination was a source of his lasting appeal to the young.
As a conservative, Buckley had a proper reverence for the greats of old. His obituaries and eulogies are among his best writings--able at once to convey grief and gratitude. But Buckley's was a world for young men and women, a world of challenge and daring and excitement. And he was extraordinarily kind and helpful to the young--including to those who were by no means his followers or even reliable allies.
More broadly, Buckley was notable for a generosity of spirit and an intellectual ecumenism. He welcomed many kinds of conservatives, old and new, into the fold at National Review, and he welcomed the emergence of other conservative organs and institutions (including this magazine). He knew that different kinds of conservatism could possess different elements of truth--and he would even acknowledge that liberalism might occasionally glimpse certain aspects of the just or the good. He didn't ever relax his standards of critical judgment, but he recognized the limits of any one person's or group's judgment. This combination of principle and ecumenism was key to his own intellectual vitality, and to the health of the conservatism he fathered.
As for Buckley the man: He lived life more fully than anyone I have known, with more joy, verve, and spirit. In watching over Buckley's 82 years on this terrestrial orb, surely the morning stars sang together for joy.