William Frank Buckley Jr. (November 24 1925 – February 27 2008) was an American author and conservative commentator. He founded the political magazine National Review in 1955, hosted 1429 episodes of the television show Firing Line from 1966 until 1999, and was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist. His writing style was famed for its erudition, wit, and use of uncommon words.
Buckley was "arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century," according to George H. Nash, a historian of the modern American conservative movement. "For an entire generation he was the preeminent voice of American conservatism and its first great ecumenical figure. Buckley's primary intellectual achievement was to fuse traditional American political conservatism with laissez-faire and anti-communism, laying the groundwork for the modern American conservatism of U.S. presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and President Ronald Reagan.
Buckley came on the public scene with his critical book God and Man at Yale (1951); among over fifty further books on writing, speaking, history, politics and sailing, were a series of novels featuring CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Buckley referred to himself "on and off" as either libertarian or conservative. He resided in New York City and Stamford, Connecticut, and often signed his name as "WFB." He was a practicing Catholic, regularly attending the traditional Latin Mass in Connecticut.
In his younger years, Buckley developed many musical talents; he played the harpsichord very well — later calling it "the instrument I love beyond all others." He was an accomplished pianist and appeared once on Marian McPartland's National Public Radio show "Piano Jazz". A great fan of Johann Sebastian Bach, Buckley said that he wanted Bach's music played at his funeral.
The couple had one son, author Christopher Buckley. Buckley took great pride in the success of his son, and in his final years would frequently call friends late at night to read them passages from "Christo's" latest book.
Buckley had nine siblings, including sister Maureen Buckley-O'Reilly, who married Gerald O'Reilly and had several children before suddenly dying of a brain aneurysm in 1966; sister Priscilla L. Buckley, author of Living It Up With National Review: A Memoir for which William wrote the foreword; sister Patricia Lee Buckley Bozell, who was Patricia Taylor's roommate at Vassar before each married; brother Fergus Reid Buckley, an author, debate-master, and founder of the Buckley School of Public Speaking; and brother James L. Buckley, a former senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and a former U.S. Senator from New York. William and James appeared together on Firing Line. Buckley co-authored a book, McCarthy and His Enemies, with his brother-in-law attorney L. Brent Bozell Jr. (Patricia's husband).
With the end of World War II in 1945, he enrolled in Yale University, where he became a member of the secret Skull and Bones society, was a debater, an active member of the Conservative Party and of the Yale Political Union, and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Daily News.
Buckley studied political science, history and economics at Yale, graduating with honors in 1950. He excelled as the captain of the Yale Debate Team, and under the tutelage of Yale professor Rollin G. Osterweis, Buckley honed his acerbic style. Osterweis recalled that Buckley showed up at the annual Harvard-Yale debate in a jacket and tie and shorts. When quizzed about his outfit, Buckley responded that he "thought it would be a sporting contest."
In 1951, like some of his classmates in the Ivy League, Buckley was recruited into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), yet he served for less than a year. Little has been published regarding Buckley's work with the CIA, but in a 2001 letter to author W. Thomas Smith, Jr., Buckley wrote, “I did training in Washington as a secret agent and was sent to Mexico City. There I served under the direct supervision of Howard Hunt, about whom of course a great deal is known.”
When in 1951 I was inducted into the CIA as a deep cover agent, the procedures for disguising my affiliation and my work were unsmilingly comprehensive. It was three months before I was formally permitted to inform my wife what the real reason was for going to Mexico City to live. If, a year later, I had been apprehended, dosed with sodium pentothal, and forced to give out the names of everyone I knew in the CIA, I could have come up with exactly one name, that of my immediate boss (E. Howard Hunt, as it happened). In the passage of time one can indulge in idle talk on spook life. In 1980 I found myself seated next to the former president of Mexico at a ski-area restaurant. What, he asked amiably, had I done when I lived in Mexico? "I tried to undermine your regime, Mr. President." He thought this amusing, and that is all that it was, under the aspect of the heavens.
In 1951, the same year he was recruited into the CIA, Buckley's first book, God and Man at Yale, was published. The book was written in Hamden, Connecticut, where William and Pat Buckley had settled as newlyweds. A critique of Yale University, the work argues that the school had strayed from its original educational mission. The next year, he made some telling concessions in an article for Commonweal.
We have got to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. … And if they deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington—even with Truman at the reins of it all.
In 1957, Buckley published a review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers, ostensibly "reading her out of the conservative movement. Objectivists have accused Chambers of merely skimming the novel. Buckley said that Rand never forgave him for publishing the review and that "for the rest of her life, she would walk theatrically out of any room I entered!"
Also in 1957, Buckley came out in support of the segregationist South, famously writing that "the central question that emerges… is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. Buckley changed his views and by the mid-1960s renounced racism. This change was caused in part because of his reaction to the tactics used by white supremacists against the civil rights movement, and in part because of the influence of friends like Garry Wills, who confronted Buckley on the morality of his politics.
By the late 1960s, Buckley disagreed strenuously with segregationist George Wallace, and Buckley later said it was a mistake for National Review to have opposed the civil rights legislation of 1964-65. He later grew to admire Martin Luther King, Jr. and supported creation of a national holiday for him. As late as 2004, he defended his statement, at least the part referring to African Americans not being "advanced". He pointed out the word "Advancement" in the name NAACP and continued, "The call for the 'advancement' of colored people presupposes they are behind. Which they were, in 1958, by any standards of measurement." During the 1950s, Buckley had worked to remove anti-Semitism from the conservative movement and barred holders of those views from working for National Review.
In 1960, Buckley helped form Young Americans for Freedom and in 1964 he strongly supported the candidacy of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, first for the Republican nomination against New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and then for the Presidency. Buckley used National Review as a forum for mobilizing support for Goldwater.
To relieve traffic congestion, Buckley proposed charging cars a fee to enter the central city, and a network of bike lanes. (Mayor Bloomberg has supported such car-toll plans for New York City in the 2000s, but changes were blocked by the New York State legislature.) He also opposed a civilian review board for the New York Police Department, which Lindsay had recently introduced to control police corruption and install community policing. Buckley finished third with 13.4% of the vote, having unintentionally aided Lindsay's election by taking votes from Democratic candidate Abe Beame.
Buckley was not the first member of his family to run for a big-city mayoral position. His cousin Elliot Ross Buckley ran in 1962 as the Republican candidate for mayor of New Orleans but was easily defeated by the Democrat Victor Schiro. Elliot Buckley's New Orleans race was said to have paralleled and foreshadowed Bill Buckley's campaign three years later.
For many Americans, Buckley's erudite style on his weekly PBS show Firing Line (1966–1999) was their primary exposure to him. In it he displayed a scholarly, and humorous conservatism and was known for his facial expressions, gestures and probing questions of his guests.
Throughout his career as a media figure, Buckley had received much criticism, largely from the American left but also from certain factions on the right, such as the John Birch Society, as well as from Objectivists.
This feud continued the following year in the pages of Esquire, which commissioned an essay from both Buckley and Vidal on the television incident. Buckley's essay "On Experiencing Gore Vidal," was published in the August 1969 issue, and led Vidal to sue for libel. The court threw out Vidal's case. Vidal's September essay in reply, "A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley," was similarly litigated by Buckley. In it Vidal strongly implied that, in 1944, Buckley and unnamed siblings had vandalized a Protestant church in their Sharon, Connecticut, hometown after the pastor's wife had sold a house to a Jewish family. Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire for libel; Vidal counter-claimed for libel against Buckley, citing Buckley's characterization of Vidal's novel Myra Breckenridge as pornography. Both cases were dropped, with Buckley settling for court costs paid by Vidal, while Vidal absorbed his own court costs. Buckley also received an editorial apology in the pages of Esquire as part of the settlement.
The feud was re-opened in 2003 when Esquire re-published the original Vidal essay, at which time further legal action resulted in Buckley being compensated both personally and for his legal fees, along with an editorial notice and apology in the pages of Esquire.
Nonetheless, Buckley also maintained an antipathy towards Vidal's other bête noire, Norman Mailer, calling him "almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unequalled in his co-existence with it".
Buckley was particularly concerned about the view that what the CIA and the KGB were doing were morally equivalent. As he wrote in his memoirs, "I said to Johnny Carson that to say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.
In the late 1960s, Buckley joined the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA. He resigned in January 1978 in protest over the organization's stance against capital punishment as expressed in its Stockholm Declaration of 1977, which he said would lead to the "inevitable sectarianization of the amnesty movement".
Buckley participated in an ABC live and very heated debate with scientist Carl Sagan, following the airing of The Day After, a 1983 made-for-television movie about the effects of nuclear war. Sagan argued against nuclear proliferation, while Buckley, a staunch anti-communist, promoted the concept of nuclear deterrence. During the debate, Sagan discussed the concept of nuclear winter and made his famous analogy, equating the arms race to "two sworn enemies standing waist-deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five."
In 1988 Buckley was instrumental in the defeat of liberal Republican Senator Lowell Weicker. Buckley organized a committee to campaign against Weicker and endorsed his Democratic opponent, Connecticut Attorney General Joseph Lieberman Lieberman defeated Weicker by only about 10,000 votes, with critical margins coming from conservative areas of the state that strongly backed George H. W. Bush for President.
In 1991, Buckley received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George H. W. Bush. Buckley retired as active editor from National Review in 1990, and relinquished his controlling shares of National Review in June 2004 to a pre-selected board of trustees. The following month he published the memoir Miles Gone By. Buckley continued to write his syndicated newspaper column, as well as opinion pieces for National Review magazine and National Review Online. He remained editor-at-large at the magazine and also conducted lectures, granted occasional radio interviews and made guest appearances on national television news programs.
As a Catholic, I have abandoned hope for the liturgy, which, in the typical American church, is as ugly and as maladroit as if it had been composed by Robert Ingersoll and H.L. Mencken for the purpose of driving people away.
Incidentally, the modern liturgists are doing a remarkably good job, attendance at Catholic Mass on Sunday having dropped sharply in the 10 years since a few well-meaning cretins got hold of the power to vernacularize the Mass, and the money to scour the earth in search of the most unmusical men and women to preside over the translation.
The next liturgical ceremony conducted primarily for my benefit, since I have no plans to be beatified or remarried, will be my own funeral; and it is a source of great consolation to me that, at my funeral, I shall be quite dead, and will not need to listen to the accepted replacement for the noble old Latin liturgy. Meanwhile, I am practicing Yoga, so that, at church on Sundays, I can develop the power to tune out everything I hear, while attempting, athwart the general calisthenics, to commune with my Maker, and ask Him first to forgive me my own sins, and implore him, second, not to forgive the people who ruined the Mass.
Buckley criticized certain aspects of policy within the modern conservative movement. Of George W. Bush's presidency, he said, "If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign. He said, "Bush is conservative, but he is not a conservative", and that the president was not elected "as a vessel of the conservative faith." Regarding the War in Iraq, Buckley stated, "The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous." He added: "This isn't to say that the Iraq war is wrong, or that history will judge it to be wrong. But it is absolutely to say that conservatism implies a certain submission to reality; and this war has an unrealistic frank and is being conscripted by events. In a February 2006 column published at National Review Online and distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, Buckley stated unequivocally that, "One cannot doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed." Buckley has also stated that "...it's important that we acknowledge in the inner councils of state that it (the war) has failed, so that we should look for opportunities to cope with that failure. According to Jeffrey Hart writing in the American Conservative, Buckley had a "tragic" view of the Iraq war: he "saw it as a disaster and thought that the conservative movement he had created had in effect committed intellectual suicide by failing to maintain critical distance from the Bush administration...At the end of his life, Buckley believed the movement he made had destroyed itself by supporting the war in Iraq.
Over the course of his career, Buckley's views changed on some issues, such as drug legalization, which he came to favor. In his December 3 2007 column, Buckley advocated banning tobacco use in America.
About neoconservatives, he said in 2004: "I think those I know, which is most of them, are bright, informed and idealistic, but that they simply overrate the reach of U.S. power and influence."
Notable members of the Republican political establishment paying tribute to Buckley included President George W. Bush, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Bush said of Buckley, "[h]e influenced a lot of people, including me. He captured the imagination of a lot of people." Gingrich added, "Bill Buckley became the indispensable intellectual advocate from whose energy, intelligence, wit, and enthusiasm the best of modern conservatism drew its inspiration and encouragement... Buckley began what led to Senator Barry Goldwater and his Conscience of a Conservative that led to the seizing of power by the conservatives from the moderate establishment within the Republican Party. From that emerged Ronald Reagan. Reagan's widow, Nancy, commented, "Ronnie valued Bill's counsel throughout his political life, and after Ronnie died, Bill and Pat were there for me in so many ways."