William F. Buckley Jr. died at work, in his study. The Cold War had ended long before. A Republican was in the White House. The word “liberal” had been shunned like an ill-mannered guest.
At the end of his 82 years, much of it spent stoking and riding a right-wing wave as an erudite commentator and conservative herald, all of Buckley’s dreams seemingly had come true.
“He founded a magazine, wrote over 50 books, influenced the course of political history, had a son, had two grandchildren and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean three times,” said his son, novelist Christopher Buckley. “He really didn’t leave any stone unturned.”
Buckley was found dead in his study Wednesday morning in Stamford, Conn. His son noted Buckley had died “with his boots on, after a lifetime of riding pretty tall in the saddle.”
His assistant said Buckley was found by his cook. The cause of death was unknown, but he had been ill with emphysema, she said.
As an editor, columnist, novelist, debater and host of the TV talk show “Firing Line,” Buckley worked at a daunting pace, taking as little as 20 minutes to write a column for his magazine, National Review.
Yet on the platform, he was all handsome, reptilian languor, flexing his imposing vocabulary ever so slowly, accenting each point with an arched brow or rolling tongue and savoring an opponent’s discomfort with wide-eyed glee.
“There’s no ‘weltschmerz,’ or any sadness that permeates my vision,” he told The Associated Press during a 2004 interview at his Park Avenue duplex. “There isn’t anything I reasonably hoped for that wasn’t achieved.”
President Bush called Buckley a great political thinker, wit, author and leader. “He influenced a lot of people, including me,” the president said. “He captured the imagination of a lot of people.”
But Buckley was also willing to criticize his own and made no secret of his distaste for at least some of Bush’s policies. In a 2006 interview with CBS, he called the Iraq war a failure.
“If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced, it would be expected that he would retire or resign,” Buckley said at the time.
Luck was in the very bones of Buckley, blessed with a leading man’s looks, an orator’s voice, a satirist’s wit and an Ivy League scholar’s vocabulary. But before he emerged in the 1950s, few imagined conservatives would rise so high, or so enjoy the heights.
For at least a generation, conservatism had meant the pale austerity of Herbert Hoover, the grim isolationism of Sen. Robert Taft, the snarls and innuendoes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Democrats were the party of big spenders and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Republicans settled for respectable cloth coats.
Unlike so many of his peers and predecessors on the right, Buckley wasn’t a self-made man prescribing thrift, but a multimillionaire’s son who enjoyed wine, sailing and banter and assumed his wishes would be granted. Even historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who labeled Buckley “the scourge of American liberalism,” came to appreciate his “wit, his passion for the harpsichord, his human decency, even ... his compulsion to epater the liberals.”
Buckley once teased Schlesinger after the historian praised the rise of computers for helping him work more quickly. “Suddenly I was face to face with the flip side of Paradise,” Buckley wrote. “That means, doesn’t it, that Professor Schlesinger will write more than he would do otherwise?”
Buckley founded the biweekly magazine National Review in 1955, declaring that he proposed 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 urge it.”
Conservatives had been outsiders in both mind and spirit, marginalized by a generation of discredited stands — from opposing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to the isolationism that preceded the U.S. entry into World War II. Before Buckley, liberals so dominated intellectual thought that critic Lionel Trilling claimed there were “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
“Bill could go to the campus with that arch manner of his. And he was exciting and young and conservative,” conservative author and columnist George Will told the AP in 2004. “And all of a sudden, conservatism was sexy.”
In the 1950s, “conservatism was barely a presence at all,” Will said. “To the extent that it was a political presence, it was a blocking faction in Congress.”
The National Review was initially behind history, opposing civil rights legislation and once declaring that “the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail.”
Buckley also had little use for the music of the counterculture, once calling the Beatles “so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of antimusic.”
The magazine could do little to prevent Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964, but as conservatives gained influence, so did Buckley and his magazine. The long rise would peak in 1980, when Buckley’s good friend Ronald Reagan was elected president.
“Ronnie valued Bill’s counsel throughout his political life, and after Ronnie died, Bill and Pat were there for me in so many ways,” Reagan’s widow, Nancy Reagan, said Wednesday in a statement.
Buckley’s wife, the former Patricia Alden Austin Taylor, died in 2007 at age 80. Christopher is their only child. Buckley is also survived by two brothers and three sisters.
Christopher Buckley remembers his father’s one losing adventure, albeit one happily lost. William F. Buckley was the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor of New York in 1965, waging a campaign that was in part a lark — he proposed an elevated bikeway on Second Avenue — but that also reflected a deep distaste for the liberal Republicanism of Mayor John V. Lindsay.
“By this time I realized he wasn’t just any other dad,” Christopher Buckley told the AP. “I was 13 at the time, and there were mock debates in my fifth grade home room class. And there were people playing him, so that was kind of strange.
“And that’s when you get the sense that your dad is not just Ozzie and your parents are not Ozzie and Harriet. But he was a great dad, and he was a great man, and that’s not a bad epitaph.”