Remembering Buckley for the Right Reasons

William F. Buckley, who passed away at age 82 last week, was a rarity. He was an incisive writer and editor who fused disparate -- and sometimes downright contradictory -- ideas into the right's flagship publication, the National Review, which he started in 1955. He became the face of the modern conservative intellectual movement -- the "party of ideas" that transformed American politics permanently.

He is usually remembered for making conservative ideas palatable during a time when they seemed to have fallen off the American political radar. He stood up to the John Birch Society -- those zany conspiracy nuts on the right who believed President Eisenhower was a tool of communism -- and purged it from the movement. He disentangled postwar conservatism from the Klan and other overtly racist elements on the American right (while remaining a critic of the civil-rights movement and beholden to a subtler racism). And he expunged isolationists, embracing a muscular foreign policy that we still associate with conservatism today. As Buckley explained the purpose of National Review to a reader, "We feel that before it is possible to bring the entire nation around politically, we have got to engage the attention of people who for a long time have felt that the conservative position is moribund." Buckley delivered on that promise.

And yet, making conservatism more palatable is only part of the story and not the most important. Buckley provided conservative ideas with a style and panache that made them not only defensible but also exciting and rebellious. Buckley seemed the furthest thing from an American rebel. He was born wealthy and enjoyed a childhood on a Connecticut estate where he rode horses and sailed yachts. But when he entered public life in the early 1950s, he knew the elitist stench surrounding conservatism dashed its chances. So during a decade remembered not just for men in gray flannel suits and conformist suburbs but also Marlon Brando and James Dean as well as the Beats, Buckley made conservatism a defiant act of rebellion thereby enthralling a new generation.

He did this in his first and perhaps most enduring book, God and Man at Yale (1951). Here he stood on the side of conservative students and trustees against Yale's liberal professoriate. Buckley called for Yale's administration to dismiss professors who taught ideas in opposition to the conservative principles on which the university was founded. Buckley poured through lecture notes, textbooks, and course catalogues to prove that collectivism in economics and atheism in religious matters were ubiquitous at Yale. Fire those who taught such claptrap, Buckley argued, and don't worry about "academic freedom." The idea was little more than myth and superstition. Professors were the "intermediaries" of the president who delivered the beliefs of the trustees and alums to the students who rightfully expected education to confirm their conservative faith.

Buckley knew his book would be perceived as an attack on the liberal establishment running Yale at the time. "I have some notion of the bitter opposition that this book will inspire," he admitted. But controversy needed to be courted for the sake of his cause. Empowerment of conservative students came at a cost. And the time for bold, daring rebellion was now. He wrote in God and Man at Yale: "The conservatives, as a minority, are the new radicals. The evidence is overwhelming." Long before New Left student protests rocked America's campuses, Buckley honed his sights on the world of higher education -- it would remain in conservatives' sights years afterward -- and called his brethren to arms. He had set in place the idea that conservatives could rail against the cultural elite, coloring their ideas with a populist tinge.

A crotchety man of the left, Dwight Macdonald, recognized Buckley's book for what it was. It followed an "old familiar script," Macdonald explained, "CAMPUS REBEL FLAYS FACULTY." Macdonald was right, for Buckley came out with guns ablazing for "Boobus Liberalis" and the liberal establishment throughout the rest of the 1950s. In 1957, Buckley told a television interviewer, "I am a revolutionary against the present liberal order." That's why it came so easy for him, as the decade closed and gave way to the 1960s, to organize the student rebels of the right into Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), while still editing the National Review and writing several feisty conservative columns.

The rest of Buckley's life saw his revolution televised, literally and figuratively. When Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity were in diapers, Buckley became the country's first right-wing pundit with his own television show, Firing Line. He ridiculed and mocked his liberal foes on the show, driving some to a state of apoplexy. The debate as feud and as feisty culture war fought face-to-face became Buckley's forte. Then in 1965, he ran for mayor of New York City. As his biographer John Judis points out, it was Buckley's television persona and raucous personality that won him 13 percent of the vote. After losing, Buckley settled for the role of rock-star intellectual and cult celebrity of the right.

As the conservative movement grew by leaps and bounds from the 1960s onward, Buckley remained both cheerleader and critic. He sided in 1968 with Richard Nixon against other conservatives who backed Reagan for the nomination. In the late 1970s, he argued for returning the Panama Canal to the Panamanians, clashing with the new right and Reagan. Some thought Buckley might have been bonked out on drugs at the time (he had endorsed legalization of marijuana, also bucking his movement). But he remained conservative while courting controversy, such as when, during the 1980s, he suggested all victims of AIDS be tattooed in order to warn others of their disease. Politics as vaudeville came easy to him.

Toward the end of his life, Buckley expressed doubts and reservations about George W. Bush's war in Iraq. As for a few other conservatives, the idea of a "cakewalk" war lacked humility or restraint. So until his death, Buckley managed to serve as more than a partisan hack. He continued to release ideas that he believed others might take in the wrong direction. Whether this was self-delusion or legitimate complaint remains contested.

If his life ended in tension with the conservative movement he helped galvanize, this shouldn't allow us to ignore his primary legacy or its telling irony. The snarky populism and vaudeville punditry of the right today -- the insanity of Ann Coulter or the loudmouthed antics of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh -- is indebted to a man with a Yale education, aristocratic mannerisms, and liberal friends. Buckley's contradictions are the movement's contradictions, a movement that continues to pit itself against a liberal establishment -- even though such a thing remains in tatters at best -- and embraces a feisty rebelliousness that contradicts classic, conservative principles like civility and hierarchy. This is what made Buckley's conservatism so profoundly American and so profoundly effective.

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