William F. Buckley, Jr. is the father of the modern conservative movement. Buckley had already achieved notoriety — if not celebrity — as a young man with the publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951. He attacked the undergraduate education on offer at Yale for its hostility to Christianity and its adulation of collectivism and sought to dispel the indifference of Yale alumni to their supervisory responsibility, calling on them to grasp the nettle of university governance.
When Buckley proceeded to found National Review in 1955 at the age of 29, he lit the fire that sparked the modern conservative movement. The magazine’s inaugural issue carried Buckley’s rousing “Publisher’s Statement.” It’s the conservative version of the shot heard ’round the world — what a brilliant and audacious statement of purpose:
We have nothing to offer but the best that is in us. That, a thousand Liberals who read this sentiment will say with relief, is clearly not enough! It isn’t enough. But it is at this point that we steal the march. For we offer, besides ourselves, a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D’s in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.
And what a saga the half-century story of the rise, spread, and development of American conservatism is, from Buckley and the infancy of National Review to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Next week Bill Buckley turns 80. Tonight National Review celebrates Buckley’s 80th birhtday at a big bash at the Hotel Pierre in New York City. Buckley himself will be in attendance, together with many of the luminaries young and old of the movement he inspired.
Even when I was an addled adolescent liberal, Buckley’s elan and vocabulary were a source of inspiration to me. As a college undergraduate, I had the great good fortune to be invited by my teacher Jeffrey Hart to join Buckley and a few other teachers and their wives for dinner when Buckley came to Dartmouth to speak in the spring of 1972. Professor Hart contemplated that I would report on the dinner for the Daily Dartmouth, where I was a staff writer.
Buckley had returned from China with Nixon and Kissinger only a few weeks before. National Review had already published Buckley’s long, critical account of Nixon’s trip and the opening to China. In high style Buckley expressed eloquent indignation at the sight of Nixon clinking snifters with a mass murderer.
Nevertheless, Buckley seemed exhilarated by the trip. He raved about the Chinese food. He expressed concern about the fate of Taiwan and talked about Nixon’s concern over the conservative reaction to the trip. He confided in us off the record that Teddy Kennedy had declined to run against Nixon that year because he viewed Nixon as unbeatable. I asked him about his lament (in a column collected in one of his books) for the bygone age of bipartisan foreign policy, the tradition reflected in the expression that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Where did I write that, he asked me. I told him and experienced a little exhilaration of my own.
In his speech to a large student crowd, Buckley talked brilliantly about the China trip. I had just read his National Review article about the trip and observed how he artfully incorporated pieces of it into his speech. Following the speech he fielded student questions posed from a microphone placed on the floor in front of the podium. One of my classmates, visibly drunk, approached the microphone to ask Buckley a killer question.
“Mr. Buckley, Mr. Buckley, Mr. Buckley,” he said as he warmed to his theme. “Do you really think the American involvement in Vietnam is right, or do you recognize that it’s an imperialistic war where we’re pursuing our own interests at the expense of the Vietnamese people with no justification except the higher interests of American business and its friends in the Nixon administration…” and so on, at length.
“The former,” Buckley responded. That’s one moment that has stuck with me for a long time.
UPDATE: National Review Online has convened a symposium of contributors with memories akin to mine for the occasion: “[email protected]” I’ve changed our heading to accord with NRO’s.