Remembering William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley Jr., the father of the modern conservative movement, died this week at age 82.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Every time William F. Buckley, Jr. came to these studios to be interviewed, his visit was an event. People gathered in the halls to catch his off-hand witticisms and polysyllabic words like gold pieces falling off a coach. He made conservatism seem effervescent.

Mr. Buckley, the founder of National Review, the host of "Firing Line" and the writer of too many graceful essays, histories and novels to list, died this week of complications from emphysema at the age of 82. Emphysema, such an unseemly thing for a man who was so often a breath of fresh air.

He ran for mayor of New York in 1965 and delivered one of the cleverest quips in American political history to the question: What will you do if elected? Demand a recount, said Bill Buckley.

He gave a speech at the time that I've thought about in this election season, when so many citizens have voted in ways that defy the traditional categories of ethnicity and class.

New York politicians, he said, see a New Yorker as an Irishman, an Italian or a Negro, a union member or a white-collar worker, a Catholic or a Jew, and with Buckley-esque flourish went on to list another dozen examples.

They weigh the voting strength of all the categories and formulate a program that least-dissatisfies the least-powerful. If I become mayor of New York, I would treat people as individuals.

He revived a political ideology but was not a predictable ideologue. Mr. Buckley delivered conservative arguments for the decriminalization of marijuana, equal rights for gays and against the War in Iraq.

He was famously devoted to his family and had what's been called a genius for friendship, often with people with whom he vehemently disagreed about politics. He didn't judge someone by their politics any more than their religion or ethnicity.

This week, I found myself going back to an article Bill Buckley wrote in the late 1970s about a sail he made with friends across the Atlantic. Aboard a boat, he said, the resonance of bad humor shatters everything that the entire experience is designed to bring you, like an alarm clock going off in Carnegie Hall.

And when they could see the Rock of Gibraltar as a bump on the horizon, he opened a bottle of champagne to mark an adventure with good friends on choppy seas. It was our last night, he wrote, seated about the dining table, music, dumpy little low-gravity candles scattered about the chart table, shining through red, blue, green and yellow glass, the gas lamp in mid-table.

We decided to brighten up dessert with two huge sparklers. They were explosively effective and startling, and probably there has not been such elation on these waters since the Battle of Trafalgar.

SIMON: Bill Buckley's theme song. This is NPR News.

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William F. Buckley, Conservative Bulwark, Dies

William F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976. i i

hide captionWilliam F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976. Initially a journalist, he founded the conservative journal National Review in 1955 to air his political views. In 1973, Buckley was a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly.

Evening Standard/Getty Images
William F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976.

William F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976. Initially a journalist, he founded the conservative journal National Review in 1955 to air his political views. In 1973, Buckley was a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly.

Evening Standard/Getty Images

Buckley on NPR

Listen: Buckley on 'Fresh Air' in 1989

William F. Buckley Jr., the peerless and exuberant voice of the conservative movement, died Wednesday morning at the age of 82.

His son, the author Christopher Buckley, said his father died at his desk, at his home in Stamford, Conn., from complications of emphysema and heart disease.

As a young man, Buckley parlayed his anger at the secularization of American society into a book, God and Man at Yale, and then into National Review, the magazine that became a rallying point for conservatives.

A 'Silver-Tongued, Witty' Guy

"When he burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s, the image of the conservative was someone who didn't care about ideas — kind of a cigar-chomping industrialist that only cared about his own profits," said Rich Lowry, Buckley's hand-picked successor as editor of National Review.

Lowry says Buckley offered a new champion for conservatives dispirited by the insufficiently ideological administration of President Eisenhower.

Buckley was, Lowry said, "an Ivy League-educated, silver-tongued, witty and erudite guy who could take on all comers — and he had just an incalculable influence."

In an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation in 2004, Buckley explained his magazine's initial appeal.

"In the late '50s, when National Review was born, there were a lot of people who wanted something to read that was well-informed and staunchly and unapologetically anti-communist and anti-socialist — and National Review did that," Buckley told NPR's Lynn Neary.

Values Rooted in Christian Tradition

Buckley also argued for social values rooted in Christian traditions — and against the regulation of business and the economy. His debates with counterparts on the left — such as Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer — evolved into the long-running PBS show Firing Line, which was considered a home for lengthy, reasoned discourse and disputation.

Buckley began his career with a brief stint at the CIA. He was a sailor throughout his life, but he saved plenty of time for writing. His point of view emerged not just in the pages of his magazine, but in 45 books and 5,600 newspaper columns. In a commentary for the NPR series This I Believe, Buckley talked about his own faith — a deep Catholicism. Buckley began it by citing the story of a scholar's rebuttal to skepticism about the existence of God.

"The imperishable answer was, 'I find it easier to believe in God than to believe that Hamlet was deduced from the molecular structure of a mutton chop,' " Buckley said. "That rhetorical bullet has everything — wit and profundity."

Remaking the Conservative Movement

Above all, his son Christopher Buckley recalled Wednesday, William Buckley sought to make it respectable to be a conservative.

"He drove out the kooks of the movement," Christopher Buckley said. "He separated it from the anti-Semites, the isolationists, the John Birchers. He conducted, if you will, a kind of purging of the movement."

Buckley helped establish Young Americans for Freedom — who formed the core of Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1964. But the movement found a new standard-bearer in Goldwater's ally, Ronald Reagan, who won the White House 16 years later.

"I have heard it said on many occasions — if there hadn't been a Bill Buckley, there would have been no Goldwater — and if no Goldwater, then no Reagan," Christopher Buckley said.

William Buckley later regretted some of his positions — such as his unyielding opposition in the mid-1960s to landmark voting rights bills. But Buckley took pride in seeing his influence spread as the modern conservative movement took hold.

Over the past year, as his health declined and as he mourned the death of his wife, Pat, Buckley's life became much tougher. Christopher Buckley paraphrased Shakespeare in thinking about his father's life and death.

"I sent out an e-mail this morning to ... his friends," Christopher Buckley said. "And I found myself unable to resist quoting that line from Hamlet: 'Take him for all he was worth, Horatio. He was a man, and I shall not look on his like again.' "

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