William F. Buckley, Jr.: The Most Influential Conservative of the 20th Century
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by Rachel Alexander | March 3rd, 2008

 WFB's legacy was building up the intellectual side of conservatism and coalescing conservative factions, which set the groundwork for conservatives to win victory in the political election and campaign realm with the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  


The passing of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died this past Thursday at 82, represents the loss of one of the greatest of Americans. WFB, who successfully brought disparate and sometimes factionalized right-leaning factions together under a united Republican banner, developed an unmatched political movement rooted in conservative ideas. It ultimately led to the 1980 election of a self-described movement conservative as our 40th President, Ronald Reagan. If conservatism owes its national political ascent to Reagan's election, it owes even the possibility of that ascent to WFB. 

WFB is credited for accomplishing this because he was one of the rare individuals who comprised the multiple qualities of intellectualism, charm and rapier wit, genuineness, practicality and most importantly, unsurpassed verbal and writing skills. Many intellectuals lack some or most of those qualities, which impedes them from accomplishing much outside of their ivory towers. Politicians usually have the charisma, but lack the intellectual ability. The two areas rarely overlap. There are two kinds of politics; 1) policy, and 2) campaigns and elections. Most people involved in politics are involved with one but not the other. WFB was one of the few who was able to fuse the two together to substantially change America’s political scene, and gave conservative thought intellectual credibility as its spokesperson. Although he was never successful himself running for office, he had a profound effect on leaders like Reagan, who said he’d read every issue of National Review, and former Senator Barry Goldwater, who helped revive an interest in conservative principles. 


WFB started National Review in 1955 which he used as a vehicle to improve the reputation of Republicans, who were looked upon with suspicion as neanderthals tainted by radical elements of anti-Semitism and fringe beliefs. WFB brought together the best elements on the right and purged the worst, never seeing diversity of conservative thought as a weakness but as a strength. He described himself as a conservative libertarian. As Lee Edwards from the Heritage Foundation notes, National Review wasn’t just a magazine, it was a political act; WFB not only wrote but turned its writing into success at the ballot box for conservatives. His Firing Line show was so popular it ran for 33 years, the longest run ever for a talk show host. 

Originally an isolationist, WFB changed his views on foreign intervention in the 1950’s in response to the perceived threat of communism. He brought factions on the right together under the mantra of anti-communism. The collapse of communism in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s is credited in part to WFB; while Reagan organized America politically, WFB helped create an intellectual framework that enabled Reagan to build an intellectual consensus that he could also use

WFB had an irresistible charm that combined an aristocratic air and dry wit with Christian sentiment. Those who knew him personally say he was always polite and took time to respond to people. He was quick to cultivate younger leaders, an undertaking that older, more established conservatives never did. Always erudite, WFB was well-known for having a large multi-syllabic vocabulary, and ran regular features in National Review on the meaning of words. Sometimes the point of his articles was lost as his befuddled readers ran for their dictionaries. 

Fox News showed a one-hour special on WFB last weekend, which included a clip of Reagan speaking with WFB standing next to him. Reagan explained how WFB once handed him a memo and stood waiting while he read it, 

Action-oriented orchestration innovation inputs generated by escalation of indigenous meaningful decision-making dialogue focusing on multilinked problem complexes can maximize the vital thrust toward non-alienated and vital infrastructure.

 Reagan said he took a chance after reading it and replied, “Let’s try busing?” 

Ironically, although WFB will forever be known as the intellectual conservative of the 20th century, writing 55 books, he could never quite acquire the discipline to write a philosophical book. In the WFB biography Patron Saint of the Conservatives, John Judis follows WFB’s struggles to write something less superficial than political analysis. WFB never did pull it off because he was too much of a political activist, his was an “engaged” intellect, not one that spent forever in the ivory tower. No doubt this bothered him immensely, even though it was such a small lack of accomplishment relative to the rest of his life no one noticed. He inspired others to write such books, most notably Russell Kirk who wrote The Conservative Mind.

WFB in his study

After the Reagan era, the conservative coalition that WFB and Reagan brought together disintegrated, somewhat because George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were not “conservative” as in the noun, they were “conservative” as in the adjective. As WFB explains, they did conservative things, but their underlying core philosophy was not rooted in conservative principles. As a result, the various factions within the Republican Party gradually splintered off, with libertarians deserting the party over the Iraq War, grassroots conservatives mad at G.W. Bush over illegal immigration, and fiscal conservatives disgruntled over spending. The Bushes were never able to rally the right together against the threat of islamofascism the way WFB coalesced the right against the threat of communism. 

WFB’s own magazine National Review has trended toward the neoconservative side of the right since WFB left the helm, featuring fewer libertarian, paleoconservative and socially conservative viewpoints. WFB was partially responsible for this change in the magazine, when he began neglecting to give Catholicism prominence in the 1990’s. I started intellectualconservative.com in 2002 to fill that void, and in this post-WFB era it has been difficult; the deep divisions on the right are reflected in the myriads of angry comments after our articles.  

Today a show like Firing Line wouldn’t make it, because of its slower, deeper intellectual pace. We have The O’Reilly Factor with its erudite words at the end of the show, and Hannity and Colmes, which cater to the sound-bite busy crowd and emphasize elections over policy. Perhaps someday a leader will emerge that will pull the right together again as WFB did. But most likely that era is over, with our fast-paced internet and media generation and its short attention span for anything intellectual, WFB will forever remain a unique phenomenon.



Labels: Politics: General, Culture: General, Features, Interviews & Profiles, Neocons & Paleocons, Political Theory, Humanities, Language, Academia, Histo

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