William F. Buckley, Jr. is the founder of the modern conservative movement that gained its political expression first in Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan. At age 29 in 1955 when Buckley founded National Review as the voice of the movement, he performed two acts of statesmanship that were vital to the movement’s ultimate, if unlikely, success: he reserved exclusive ownership of the magazine to himself so as to prevent the kind of sectarian brawls that had killed other such magazines, and he prohibited John Birchers and other kooky anti-Semitic organizations from the magazine’s precincts.
Recall, as John Judis does in his biography of Buckley, that in 1954 the fortunes of the American Right had never appeared dimmer; the principal right-wing organizations were anti-Semitic and neo-isolationist throwbacks to the thirties and forties. Recall also that in the Publisher’s Statement of National Review’s first issue, Buckley defined conservatism as the willingness to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who do.”
Buckley conceived of the magazine’s mission as presenting “a responsible dissent from Liberal orthodoxy,” adding that the magazine’s editors had “a considerable stock of experience with the irresponsible Right.” Perhaps equally notably, the “responsibility” on which Buckley staked the magazine’s mission was never to be confused with dullness. Both he and the magazine took on the best that the liberals could furnish and bested them with a smile on their face and a glint in their eye.
Today’s New York Times reports that at a private dinner this evening Buckley will divest himself of the ownership of National Review and transfer control to a board of five trustees: “National Review founder says it’s time to leave stage.” It is a pivotal moment in the history of the conservative moment. Congratulations are in order, and attention must be paid.
UPDATE: Power Line reader and science fiction writer Dafydd ab Hugh adds:
Bill Buckley happens to be good friends with my pal and occasional collaborator, Brad Linaweaver… and there are some interesting things about Buckley and National Review that are rarely mentioned.
First of all, nearly half the charter members of the magazine’s staff were ex-Communists. When this was pointed out to Buckley one day by some puckish interviewer, Buckley flashed his trademarked grin and responded, “yes… EX-Communists!”
His blowup with Gore Vidal during one-the-air “blogging” of the 1968 Democratic National Convention occurred when Vidal, in a fit of girly-man pique, referred to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley retaliated by calling Vidal a “faggot.” (Buckley was wrong, for once; Vidal was not a homosexual; he was an omnisexual, being equally happy sleeping with men, women, or likely anything else not swift enough or lucky enough to escape his embraces.) Years later, Vidal confessed that he hadn’t meant to say crypto-Nazi… he intended to call Buckley a crypto-Fascist, but the other just slipped out. Buckley says he would never have reacted so violently to being called a crypto-Fascist, but crypto-Nazi was “beyond the pale.”
Until he entered the mental twilight of his last years, Ronald Reagan always insisted that what he really was, politically, was “a National-Review conservative.” Those who try to paint Reagan as some sort of proto-neocon might do well to bear this in mind.
Bill’s series about CIA spy Blackford Oakes was deliberately intended to be the most realistic — read morally ambiguous — spy series ever written. Buckley says he was trying to show that he could be just as morally equivalent as the next fellow, hence just as literary. Because (I’m convinced) of the moral ambiguity, the Blackford Oakes novels were taken much more seriously by the New York literary Mafia than anything else Buckley ever wrote.
The best of them is undoubtedly Stained Glass, about an assignment for Oakes to assassinate a young, rising, charismatic, neo-Nazi politician in West Germany. If you read no other Blackford Oakes novels, you should read this one.
Buckley, who spent an unknown period of time in some unknown relationship with the CIA doing undiscussed favors for them, is also a sailor with his own yacht; he has written several books of travelogue about his sailing adventures, sometimes all alone on the boat for weeks.
Buckley actually spoke Spanish before he spoke English, due to time spent in Mexico (where his family has oil interests) and being raised in New York by Mexican nannies. I don’t believe National Review has ever had a profitable year… but like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Buckley decided that he could lose a lot of money each year and still be able to run the magazine for decades.
Brad got Bill Buckley to write a science-fiction story (short short) to open Brad’s anthology Free Space, the first libertarian SF anthology. The second and best story in the book, “Nerfworld,” was written by your faithful correspondent. So I reckon I can truly say that William F. Buckley, Jr. has introduced me!