Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted from an address to the annual meeting of the Fund for American Studies on February 4, 2023. This article was originally published at National Review and is re-published here with the author’s permission.
Let me begin with a story that tells you much of what you need to know about Bill Buckley.
Some years back, my bride Jane gave me the best present I’ve ever received. I now recommend it for all those hard-to-please types on your Christmas list. Jane sued the federal government and obtained a copy of my FBI file.
I should note here that Jane and I were introduced by Bill Buckley, prompting one of my many left-wing cousins to call ours an “arranged Taliban wedding.” I now recommend those, too.
Your FBI file makes for a great read. It’s better than attending your own funeral. The best parts are the field audits.
When you’re nominated for a presidential appointment, the Bureau conducts a full field investigation. They talk to everybody — business partners, friends, neighbors. Somewhat more pungently, they talk to former employees, the more disgruntled the better. They talk to your fraternity brothers, and to the local police. They talk to the guy whose tiny, dog-like creature was nipped by your real dog. In terms of personal intrusion, the field audit is colonoscopic.
Reassuringly, the Witnesses tell the truth. For two reasons. The Agent warns them first that, if they don’t, they could be subject to felony arrest; and second, that, because their testimony will be sealed, their words will never reach the Subject’s ears. Right.
Admit it: Haven’t you ever wondered what people really think of you?
Well, I’m flipping through my file on Christmas morning and I come across the sworn testimony of William F. Buckley Jr. His name is redacted, but I know immediately who it is. Who else would drop the phrase mutatis mutandis into an FBI interview?
The first question is a frame-setter. Agent: “How would you describe your relationship to the Subject?” Witness: “He’s one of my closest friends.” Now, I knew that, but it was oddly moving to read it in a secret government document.
The Agent then leads the Witness through a series of ventures in which the Subject and the Witness had collaborated. As he did so, I was reminded that, while you and I may watch the movie of our life in black and white, Bill Buckley saw his in vivid color. And in large, Rorschachian patterns. He had a knack for discerning connections, invisible to others, between mundane activity and high purpose.
Take the syndication of his newspaper column. One bright fall day, I rented a car, stuffed the trunk with promotional literature, and for the next six months drove across the country, selling Bill’s column city to city. I remember that trip well. At one level, it was basic training for my later work as a commentator on national affairs: I learned the political geography of the country from the ground up. At a slightly less elevated level, I remember that trip as the last great bachelor adventure of my life.
Bill, of course, remembered it differently. In his telling, I wasn’t just a traveling salesman. As he recounted my long, stop-go advance from East to West, Bill seems to have persuaded himself that, in completing my journey, I had somehow managed to combine the best qualities of Lewis and Clark.
The Witness wraps up his testimony with characteristic panache. The Agent’s final question — an omnibus, fanny-covering question — is this: “Would the Subject be likely to do anything that would embarrass the Administration?” Replies the Witness, still under oath: “I should think that the reverse would be much more likely.”
That was Bill Buckley.
I met him in 1963. I was sitting at my desk at Doubleday & Company, the junior-most executive at what was then the biggest and arguably the best book publisher in the country. The phone rang and a man identifying himself as William Buckley said, “I’ve just read your piece on Mr. Rockefeller and found it arresting. I wonder if you could join me for dinner to discuss it.” I was living in a studio apartment in New York City. He had me at “dinner.”
I showed up at the appointed hour to find that Bill lived in one of those railroad-car townhouses — narrow on the street, long in the back. There were four of us for dinner. Bill and I, Bill’s wife Patsy, and the publisher of National Review magazine, Bill Rusher.
Patsy made a strong first impression. She was six feet tall. Supermodel gorgeous. Vassar-educated, with a wit that carried the sting of an alpha hornet. An improbably good cook. And a chauvinistic Canadian from the real Canada, the Western provinces. It would be fair to say of Patsy Buckley that she never met an extractive industry she didn’t like.
Bill Rusher had worked a Stakhanovite schedule through high school, which got him into Princeton, where he excelled, which got him into Harvard Law School, where he excelled again. When he landed a partner-track job at a big Wall Street firm, his single mom, possibly for the first time in 25 years, was able to exhale: Her only child, Billy, was going to be all right. Which he was. Until the day he quit the white-shoe law firm to join Buckley’s ragtag band at National Review.
How did that evening go? We talked about boats and architecture and, for reasons I can’t imagine, standing armies. We took on the Oxbridge trilogy of PP&E — politics, philosophy, and economics. We talked without pause. Four peas, one pod.
At ten o’clock, Bill Rusher, a man of iron habits, excused himself and went home. Along about one o’clock, Patsy, a young mother with things to do in the morning, excused herself and went upstairs to bed. I don’t know how long I stayed, but I do remember this: When I left Bill’s place, I walked downtown to the Doubleday building. I went to the men’s room and shaved. And I marched into the boss’ office and resigned. I was going to work for National Review.
Why did I leave a promising career? Why did Bill Rusher? Why did the rest of the National Review Irregulars? Because Bill Buckley intended to change the world. We thought he just might do it. And we wanted to help.
The shocking twist to this story of impetuous youth is that, in the event, it happened in exactly that way. Bill changed the world — and some of us like to think we helped.
Remember the historical circumstance. After the Eisenhower moderates had crushed the Taft conservatives, America at mid-century found herself with two great political parties — a tendentiously Left party, the Democrats, and a staunchly centrist party, the Republicans. Lionel Trilling’s phrase has survived these many decades because it was so perfectly true. Conservative resistance in this country, Trilling observed, amounted to little more than a series of “irritable mental gestures.”
It is important to remember, then, that Bill Buckley did not resuscitate American conservatism. He did not rejigger it. He created it. And as we all know, it is more difficult — more difficult by orders of magnitude — to create something new than to maintain something old.
Under Bill’s loose and avuncular supervision, we all developed our own philosophical frameworks — congenially related to his, of course, but tailored to accommodate our individual predispositions.
I can tell you how my own developed. As I read more history, I began to hear the American story as one endless and endlessly fascinating conversation between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The question that engaged them was this: Where in the American society should we place the locus of power? Should we place it at the periphery, with what we hope is the enlightened individual, as Jefferson argued? Or should we place it close to the hub, with what we hope is a benevolent central authority, as Hamilton argued?
The correct answer, of course, is: Neither of the above.
Every generation must strike its own balance between the competing claims of personal freedom and social order. Why must they do so? Because it is axiomatic that if one side wins, both sides lose. Social order without personal freedom becomes tyranny just as surely as personal freedom without social order becomes anarchy. It is precisely the tension between these two powerful impulses that animates American society.
Political scientists call our system of governance ordered liberty. Which, for me, has been, and with any luck will continue to be, the golden oxymoron of the American experiment.
Broad minds, such as Buckley’s, could live with the unresolved question — the strategic ambivalence — between order and liberty. Narrow minds could not. Down through the years, ideological thugs — usually from the Left, occasionally from the Right — have sought to settle that question dispositively, and always — always! — in favor of an engorged and less-than-benevolent central authority.
When it came to political activism, Bill’s supervision was neither loose nor avuncular. His was the decisive voice in campaign endorsements. It was he who made the early overtures to the veterans’ groups; to the farmers and ranchers; to the cops and firemen. It was he who built out the youth groups, conspicuous among them our host today, the Fund for American Studies. It was Bill who concluded lengthy negotiations with Russell Kirk and his traditionalists to join the coalition. After which, Bill turned around and did the same thing with Kirk’s archrivals, Irving Kristol and his neoconservatives. Bill Buckley was in on the ground floor of the pro-life movement, and somewhat later, the supply-side movement. For years, decades even, he was in constant motion, building the conservative majority, block by block.
He did so not because he had lax admission standards for the coalition, but, rather, because he had lofty ambitions. He had read the Constitution carefully. He had come to understand how James Madison had rigged the system. In American politics, by quite explicit Madisonian design, coalitions win and factions lose. Bill Buckley had no interest in losing, however gloriously.
So put aside for a moment his contributions to our geostrategic triumphs, to our economic life, to our cultural life. Consider the magnitude of his political achievement. From 1964, when Bill was still in his thirties, until 2012, four years after his death at the age of 82, every Republican nominee for president was either a Buckley conservative . . . or somebody who pretended to be one.
Let me add a word, closer to the heart of your conference this weekend, about Bill Buckley as a defender of the American dream. As is the case with most originals, Bill resisted casual labels. But when pressed to describe his own political views, he would say that he was a libertarian conservative.
He did not acquire those nuanced views at elite boarding schools or at university or even at the knees of his Ph.D. colleagues at the magazine. He acquired them at the dinner table and, specifically, from two guests, one semi-regular, the other occasional.
The semi-regular guest was his father, a peripatetic seeker of fortune. William F. Buckley Sr. was a Texas oil man. Not in the sense that term is used today. Frank Buckley never strode the polished corridors of Exxon headquarters, sleek in designer suit, elegantly shod in bench-made shoes. No, Frank Buckley drilled the hard dirt of west Texas, wondering each Tuesday who might be willing to lend him the money to pay his roughnecks on Friday. He was a torpedo-damning entrepreneur, thrilled by the chase, driven by the ancient dream of giving his children better prospects than his own. I have been told that some of the proudest days of his life were those when he signed tuition checks to send his sons to Yale — all four of them.
For Bill Buckley, his father became a walking, talking affirmation of the virtues of the free market and the prodigious benefits it could produce.
The other guest, the occasional guest, was Frank’s friend Albert Jay Nock, the lambent essayist. Nock was a hard-shell libertarian. To give you the flavor of his work, one of his best-known books was entitled Our Enemy, the State. Nock brought two gifts of great value to young Buckley. The first was a singular prose style that, more than any other influence, left its imprint on Bill’s own memorable style. More consequentially, Nock gave Bill an intellectual construct for the freedom philosophy.
While his father showed Bill that the market worked, that is to say, Nock explained why it did — and why it was likely to work not just for Frank Buckley but for everybody else, as well.
After surviving instruction by professors in Yale’s Department of Economics, Bill became a life-long believer in the free-market system — a believer of both the head and the heart. Over the course of his long public career as the country’s best-known libertarian conservative, Bill came to personify for millions of Americans the golden oxymoron.
Happily for those of you in this room, not to mention your heirs and assigns, Bill was one of those rare creatures who excelled at converting thought to action. I saw it up close: Bill was indispensable in persuading his protégé Ronald Reagan to tilt our economic system away from the leviathan state and back toward the productive elements — toward the savers and investors, the innovators and job creators. It seems hard to believe at this remove — at a time when obscenely profligate boondoggles can be called, with a straight face, the American Rescue Plan — but during the Reagan presidency, the top individual tax rate was cut from 73 percent to 28 percent.
That was a monumental achievement. Nobody would argue otherwise. But that’s not how Bill chose to describe it. From his perspective, the headline news was that the entrepreneur’s share of the new dollar of revenue had just increased from 27 cents to 72 cents. That was a victory to be celebrated. That was a victory for the enterprising individual, long overdue. That was a victory for the economically marginalized, for whom growth is the only way up and out. That was a victory for the American spirit which, then as now, was desperately in need of rejuvenation. And that was a victory for the cause of freedom, which never has enough foul-weather friends.
That was Bill Buckley.
In late 2007, he missed our regular catch-up session and I called to check on him. I invited him to visit us in Maine. We could watch some boat-building and plot out his next book. There was no response, so I tried again. I said there might even be an apology for Firing Line in it for him. (That was an inside joke. He had never liked the name I gave to the television series.)
After a long pause, he replied, “Mon vieux, I have terminal emphysema.” Bill Buckley did not use words imprecisely. I thought a bit and said, “Okay, we’ll bring Maine to you. Hold lunch for us on Tuesday.” Jane and I pulled some lobsters, scavenged a few bottles of his favorite Alsatian white, and barreled down the road to Stamford, Conn.
It was a chilly day, but sunny, and we sat out on his lanai overlooking Long Island Sound. We drank some wine and laughed and talked about the good times, of which there had been many.
Toward mid-afternoon, he tired. He said he needed a “snort of oxygen.” As he started to rise from his chair, he slumped back down again, a stricken look crossing his face. He was mortified, as he put it, to remember that a book he had given me actually belonged to a British friend. Would I be sure to get it to him? He mentioned a woman with whom we both had worked. He regretted that cross words had passed between them. Would I remember to tell her that he loved her? He had promised a mutual friend that he would write a letter for a grandson seeking admission to Yale. Bill didn’t think he could get to it. Might I be willing to fill in?
One by one, this man who had known popes and presidents, this man who had bent the arc of so much history, worked his way through a list of slights unattended and courtesies unreturned, none of them rising to the level of a social misdemeanor. But these were the most important people in the world. These were his friends.
He died a few weeks later. His caretaker said Bill had been at his desk in the drafty old garage he used as a makeshift office. He was writing a column for some of the same newspapers that had hired him more than 40 years earlier.
Two days later, I received a letter from National Review’s New York office. It was Bill, thanking me for some forgettable favor and, more generally, for a lifetime of friendship. It was apposite, exquisitely so, that Bill Buckley should have expended some of his last breaths dictating expressions of gratitude. His life with words had been long and promiscuous, but he remained steadfast in his attachment to the word “gratitude.” It became the title of his favorite book, which took the form of a love letter to the United States of America. He was grateful to his country, to his friends, to his family, to his church.
My message today is to urge you to return that gratitude in kind. There are ominous rumbles suggesting that the mindless mob may be coming for Bill Buckley in full, monument-toppling mode. I cannot tell you exactly when that mob will arrive, but when it does, I would ask that you join me in resisting it. On what basis do I make this request? That question is perhaps best answered by another question: Did anybody do more than Bill Buckley to save our nation from socialism, and our world from communism?