Five years ago today, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. passed away at home, at his desk, while working. We miss him and wonder what he might be writing and advising and asking today. Some NR family and friends remember and consider.
WFB was smart, devout, funny, generous, etc. etc. Maybe what we should most remember now is how hard he worked, and how accustomed he was to the long haul. He founded this magazine, his love child, in 1955. There was not a president to his liking for 13 years — and then he turned out not to be to his liking. So there was not a president to his liking for 25 years — and even then not everything was magically fixed. The Berlin Wall fell after 34 years, the Soviet Union after 36.
You could extend the list of bad things that lasted a long time. During all that time, WFB ran, or oversaw this magazine, shot his TV shows (1966 to 1999), wrote his three-times-a-week column (1962 until the day he died).
The man he admired most was Whittaker Chambers, and the Chambers line he quoted most often was that political activism was a dance along a precipice — the precipice being the temptations of quietism and despair. No handwringers or crybabies need apply. If you don’t want to work, go home — and leave the job of defending your home to others.
— Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor at National Reviewand author, most recently, of James Madison.
Bill was a master fusionist at National Review, able to bring together and keep together the most disputatious of intellectuals — Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk, Ernest van den Haag, Jeffrey Hart, etc. He never forgot a metaphor which his Yale mentor Willmoore Kendall often used in class.
Conservative forces, Kendall said, were strung out in isolated outposts over a wide front, allowing liberals to overrun them one at a time. Only when the conservative outposts united in recognition of a common enemy would conservatism prevail.
Bill Buckley constantly reminded traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-Communists (and later neoconservatives and New Rightists) of their common enemies — liberalism at home and Communism abroad. And for decades they formed a unified movement, inspired by that remarkable political fusionist, Ronald Reagan.
Bill would do the same today, exhorting the conservative faithful in their varying denominations to lay aside differences and unite to roll back the welfare state — “Leviathan delenda est!” And he would chide those who would read this or that “faction” out of the movement, pointing out that in the house of conservatism there are many rooms.
One evening, back in 1958, and quite by accident, I came upon William F. Buckley Jr. being interviewed on television. I had never seen him or heard him speak, although I was vaguely aware he had written a notorious book, God and Man at Yale. But what could a Yale snob who talked like Little Lord Fauntleroy have to say to me, a Jersey City working-class guy? I listened to what he was saying in that unique aristocratic drawl, and I liked what I heard. The wit, the easy manner, the civility, the reasonable, if not always persuasive, arguments — all quite captivating. I subscribed to National Reviewand, in 1960, had my first paid article published in the magazine, a satire on Japanese student riots called “Rave, New World.” (Oh, well, it sounded clever at the time.)
Those were the early days when NR set the tone that still inspires the magazine today: scrappy, confident, irreverent, and tough-minded, with a happy-warrior feistiness. Every two weeks I awaited the newest issue and read it straight through, learning about conservative principles, not in some textbook fashion but in the slam-bang, head-on collisions of clashing ideas and current controversies that constitute NR’s unique glory. National Review was not simply a by-the-numbers catechism of conservative principles, but an intra-family battleground where arguments over freedom and virtue, and libertarian and traditional values, were fought.
There was a lot I had to learn and NR proved to be my post-graduate school of political and cultural education. The night I saw Bill on television for the first time changed my life. He gave me somewhere to stand in order to fight for what we both believed in. And, later on, I was fortunate enough to work with his sainted brother Jim.