Obituary: William F. Buckley Jr. / Erudite founder of modern conservative movement
William F. Buckley Jr. in 2004
William Buckley Jr. with Gore Vidal on election night, 1968.
William F. Buckley Jr. in 1979.
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When William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review magazine in 1955, he famously defined its conservatism as the willingness to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop."
Mr. Buckley took that stand and then never stopped moving. He shaped modern history as few Americans have, and by all accounts, including his own, he had an enormous amount of fun along the way.
Mr. Buckley died Wednesday morning in his study at home in Stamford, Conn., at the age of 82. He was one of the greatest and most influential American thinkers of the 20th century, a witty and prolific writer whose cheerful willingness to move contrary to the intellectual spirit of the age inspired a political movement that dominated the century's final decades.
"He followed Walter Lippmann as one of the great journalists of his time," said Jeffrey Hart, an emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth College who has been a senior editor at National Review for 39 years.
"Lippmann interpreted the New Deal to a wide audience. Buckley started the conservative movement and it reached its peak with the election of Reagan and, from Buckley's point of view, came to grief with the invasion of Iraq. He always had an independent streak and a genius for friendship.''
Mr. Buckley worked and played at full throttle: He was a renowned bon vivant, raconteur, harpsichordist, spy novelist, columnist, magazine editor, television talk-show star and transoceanic sailor. The author of 55 books and editor of several more, he was so prolific that an envious fellow writer once joked in The Washington Post that Mr. Buckley must have used a Dictaphone even while in the shower.
It is impossible to separate Mr. Buckley's accomplishments from his style. His conservatism was witty and learned, rather than belligerent and dour. His patrician good looks and effortless manner, seen by millions on his long-running public affairs show "Firing Line," inspired generations of young conservatives.
So did his generosity. When Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Jack Kelly was attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969, he helped found an independent, conservative weekly newspaper, the Badger Herald. Without university funding, the going was tough, so Mr. Kelly wrote to Mr. Buckley asking him to write a little plug for the newspaper in National Review.
"Instead he devoted an entire column to our paper," Mr. Kelly remembers. And in May 1971 Mr. Buckley traveled to Wisconsin to speak, for free, at the newspaper's fundraiser. Today the Badger Herald is the largest fully independent campus daily in the nation.
He also was something of an intellectual impresario, putting together in social occasions people he liked but whose views seldom converged. The leading conservative of the time enjoyed the company of John Kenneth Galbraith, the liberal economist, and Murray Kempton, the liberal columnist. "It wasn't quite like P.T. Barnum,'' said Mr. Hart, "but he liked to put on a show.''
Mr. Buckley was born on Nov. 24, 1925, the sixth of 10 children. His father was a millionaire in the oil industry. He was educated by private tutors and at exclusive Catholic schools, and learned to debate, he said, at the family dinner table. A devout Roman Catholic, Mr. Buckley first made a name for himself in 1951 when he published, post-graduation, the book "God and Man At Yale," attacking what he regarded as Yale University's anti-religious and socialist leanings.
He founded the biweekly National Review in 1955 and Young Americans for Freedom in 1960. In 1961 he helped found the Conservative Party in New York and ran as its mayoral candidate in 1965. His second most famous quote (after the "stand athwart history" line) was his quip when asked what he would do if he won the election: "Demand a recount."
Mr. Buckley was able to define the conservative mainstream, with its staunch anticommunism and free-market economics, while rejecting the excesses of McCarthyism, the John Birch Society and the like, and espousing iconoclastic positions like support for the legalization of marijuana. The movement he had created reached its zenith with the election of his good friend Ronald Reagan in 1980.
While readership of National Review grew from 16,000 in 1957 to 115,000 in 1972 to 166,000 today, Mr. Buckley always had to subsidize it with his lecture fees. For 40 years, he gave as many as 70 speeches a year.
In more recent years, he had begun reducing his prodigious workload. He stepped down as top editor of National Review in 1990, gave up his speaking schedule in 1998, ended his 33-year run on "Firing Line" in 1999, and gave up his voting stock in National Review in 2004.
But he kept writing. Besides the career-launching "God and Man at Yale," other oft-mentioned favorites of his fans include "Up From Liberalism," "Cruising Speed" and "Saving the Queen," the first in his Blackford Oakes spy series. "Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription," a collection of his correspondence with readers, was published last year; his biography of Barry Goldwater will appear this spring. He died while working on a biography of Reagan.
His wife, Pat, whom he met while at Yale and who became a philanthropist and New York socialite, died in April 2007. He is survived by his son Christopher, a satirist ("Thank You For Smoking") and novelist.
First Published February 28, 2008 12:00 am