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William F. Buckley Jr. Dies at 82

William F. Buckley Jr. Dies at 82

By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 1:16 PM

 

William F. Buckley Jr., 82, the intellectual founder of the modern conservative movement, who helped define the movement's doctrines of anti-communism, military strength, social order and a capitalist economy, died today at his home in Stamford, Conn. He had diabetes and emphysema, but the precise cause of death has not been determined.

Buckley was an editor, syndicated columnist, television and radio talk show host, novelist and a witty and gifted orator and raconteur. In 1955, at the age of 29, five years after graduating from Yale, he founded the National Review, a magazine whose mission, he declared, would be "to stand athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!' "

In his public persona, Buckley was often described as a "Renaissance man of the right." He had been a covert operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. He spoke with a patrician accent and he was urbane, charming and erudite. His wit was trenchant and his sarcasm biting. Lyndon B. Johnson, he once said, was "a man of his most recent word."

President Ronald Reagan called Buckley "the most influential journalist and intellectual of our era." The National Review, Reagan said, "is to the West Wing of the White House what People magazine is to your dentist's office."

Buckley's syndicated newspaper column, "On the Right," appeared in hundreds of newspapers throughout the United States and in foreign countries, and his television program, "Firing Line," carried nationwide on the Public Broadcasting System, featured presidents, prime ministers and notable writers.

Buckley was a serious student of the English language and was widely known for his large, polysyllabic vocabulary. A stickler for proper punctuation, he hated unnecessary exclamation points and commas. He loved sailing, skiing and playing the harpsichord. He made four transoceanic sailing voyages and had been to the South Pole.

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said in 1999 that Buckley "legitimized conservatism as an intellectual movement and therefore as a political movement. . . . For people of my generation, Bill Buckley was pretty much the first intelligent, witty, well-educated conservative one saw on television. "

To Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Kennedy insider, Buckley was "the scourge of American liberalism."

In the early 1950s, when Buckley first stepped onto the political stage, American conservatism was rudderless, in turmoil and very noisy. Joseph R. McCarthy, the Republican Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, was making loud accusations about communist influences in the federal government, U.S. armed forces were fighting a communist invasion in South Korea, and Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), the longtime conservative standard bearer, Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio), had lost the 1952 Republican presidential nomination to Dwight D. Eisenhower. The next year Taft died, leaving a leadership gap at the conservative summit. On the far right, the ultra-conservative John Birch Society was increasingly vocal and strident.

Into this maelstrom marched Buckley, convinced that the time was ripe for a new voice, which he proposed to add with a new magazine, the National Review. "It can give the Right the kind of decent image it needs, instead of the image that some people are giving it now," biographer John B. Judis quoted him as saying.

By then, Buckley had already published his first major book, "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom," (1951) in which he accused the faculty of his alma mater of a pervasive bias against religion, individualism and capitalism. The book sparked a heated debate, which only helped elevate Buckley's public profile. Academicians tended to see it as a polemic against liberal education, and some suggested it was a product of Buckley's "militant Catholicism."

But in the minds of many middle Americans, the book tapped a lode of latent antipathy for the Eastern aristocracy. That Buckley was himself a member of this aristocracy only sharpened the knife blade of his criticism, much to the delight of his supporters.

Over the next five decades, he would write dozens more books, ranging from an account of his faith in the Catholic Church to spy novels, featuring a dashing CIA agent named Blackford Oakes, who like Buckley, was a Yale graduate. He wrote best-selling travel books based on his own experiences; a children's book; and a novel about Elvis Presley.

Although primarily a political, cultural and social critic, Buckley did run for political office once. In 1965, he was the Conservative Party candidate in a three-way race for mayor of New York with Republican John V. Lindsay and Democrat Abraham Beame. Lindsay won, but Buckley won 13 percent of the vote, more than any previous Conservative mayoral candidate. Asked what he would do if he had won, he said, "Demand a recount."

William Frank Buckley Jr. was born in New York, the sixth of 10 children. His father presided over an oil empire with holdings in seven countries and a fortune that at his death in 1958 was estimated at $10 million. As a child, Buckley was raised by a Spanish-speaking governess and educated at Catholic private schools in France and England. Even in his earliest years, he was outspoken. At the age of 8, he wrote a letter to the King of England demanding repayment of Britain's World War I debt.

At one time or another, all the Buckley children were given professional instruction in art, ballroom dancing, birdwatching, calligraphy, building boats in bottles, tennis, piano playing, tap dancing, typing and woodcarving.

Buckley attended the University of Mexico for a year in 1943 and 1944, then served two years in the Army. His father decided he should attend Yale, partly because of its proximity to the family home in Sharon, Conn. In his senior year, Buckley was chairman of the Yale Daily News student newspaper and a member of Skull and Bones, the secret senior society whose membership also includes both Presidents Bush.

In college, he met his future wife, Patricia Taylor, a Vassar classmate of his sister, Patricia.

On July 6, 1950, shortly after Buckley's graduation, they were married. Buckley taught Spanish at Yale while writing "God and Man at Yale." Predictably, the university administration was outraged by the book. Reviewing it in Atlantic Monthly, Yale graduate McGeorge Bundy called Buckley a "twisted and ignorant young man," and said his book was "dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory." Yale ordered 3,000 reprints of the review.

For a year, Buckley was a CIA operative in Mexico. His case officer was E. Howard Hunt, who came to national prominence two decades later in connection with the Watergate break-in that brought down the Nixon presidency. Hunt was convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping and served 33 months in a federal prison.Buckley paid his legal expenses when Hunt ran out of money.

Back in the United States after leaving the CIA, Buckley did some freelance writing and lecturing, and with his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell wrote another book, "McCarthy and His Enemies" (1954), which further enraged his liberal critics.

"As long as McCarthyism fixes its goals with its present precision, it is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks," they argued. Their book was published in March of 1954, one month before the start of the televised Army-McCarthy hearings that led ultimately to McCarthy's censure by the Senate and his downfall. When McCarthy died in 1957, National Review devoted two issues of tributes to him.

In its early years, National Review attacked any and all U.S. policies it perceived as concessions to communism, condemned what it called "the welfare state" and defended the South's resistance to racial integration. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the National Review was one of only a few to criticize President John F. Kennedy for his deal with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev not to invade Cuba in exchange for removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.

At National Review, Buckley became known as a discoverer of talented conservative writers, including syndicated columnist George F. Will and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Cultural critics Garry Wills and Joan Didion also wrote for the magazine in its early years.

In 1960, Buckley helped establish the conservative Young Americans For Freedom organization, and in 1961 he was a founder of the New York Conservative Party. In 1970, his older brother, James L. Buckley, was elected to the U.S. Senate on the New York Conservative ticket.

His newspaper column, "On the Right," began in 1962, and his weekly television broadcasts of "Firing Line," began in 1966. Guests included presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; British prime ministers Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher; conservative icons Barry Goldwater and Jerry Falwell;, and other notables, including Groucho Marx, George McGovern and James A. Michener.By the mid 1960s, Buckley had become a media celebrity. In November of 1967, he was on the cover of Time magazine.

Initially, Buckley and his magazine supported Richard M. Nixon's presidency, under which he served on the advisory board to the U.S. Information Agency and as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. But Buckley later broke with Nixon and he called for his resignation during the Watergate crisis.

When Buckley retired as editor of the National Review in 1990, its circulation had grown from 18,000 in 1956 to a robust 137,00. He continued to write a column for the magazine until his death. Firing Line's last broadcast was in December of 1999. "You've got to end sometime, and I'd just as soon not die onstage. . . . that it ends at the millennium gives it a poetic touch," Buckley said in his valedictory for the program.

Over the years, Buckley had "transideological friendships" with such liberals as economist John Kenneth Galbraith and columnist Murray Kempton. On occasion, he strayed from the conservative line. In 1976, he endorsed Democrat Allard K. Lowenstein in his Long Island congressional race against a Republican incumbent. He supported the legalization of marijuana, after having sampled it aboard his yacht, which he sailed into international waters -- beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. law -- specifically for that purpose. As a journalist, he had referred to protesters against the war in Vietnam as "young slobs." But there were times when he rode his motorcycle around Manhattan, hair blowing in the wind, that he fit the popular image of an antiwar protester himself.

He feuded bitterly with the writer Gore Vidal, and in a live appearance on ABC television at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi."

Buckley answered: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face."

In 1975, Buckley resolved to do three things before his 50th birthday that November: write a novel, sail his boat across the Atlantic and perform a Bach harpsichord concerto with a symphony orchestra.

He did not play Bach with an orchestra, but he did write the first of what would become a series of Blackford Oakes spy novels, "Saving the Queen," in which the young CIA operative beds the young queen of England. The book became a best seller.

Buckley also made a transatlantic sailing voyage, aboard his 60-foot schooner, Cyrano, with a crew of five, sailing from Florida to Spain. In the 1980s and '90s, he performed on the harpsichord with several orchestras.

He did much of his writing in Switzerland, where he took lengthy winter vacations each year. In a written reminiscence, Chris Weinkopf, a former National Review staffer who once spent six weeks in Switzerland with Buckley, described the experience: "He is as adamant about maintaining his recreation schedule as he is about finishing his book on time. . . . The one thing Buckley won't tolerate is idle time. When he gets a haircut, he brings a book. In a restaurant, he usually calls over the waitress to order right away, and then asks for dessert midway through the entree, so that no time is lost between courses. . . . When guests overstay their welcome, Bill plays 'Goodnight Ladies' on the piano."

In 1978, Buckley ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission when, with three associates, he was accused of failing to disclose information about the sale of a company in which Buckley held an interest to another company, of which Buckley was a director. Insisting he never "intentionally misled anyone," Buckley signed a consent decree signifying neither guilt nor innocence and agreed to indemnify stockholders $1.4 million in stock and cash.

At the 25th anniversary dinner of the National Review in 1980, columnist Will called Buckley "pope of the conservative movement." With the election of Reagan as president that year, it seemed at last that a bona fide conservative reign was at hand.

But Buckley seemed to have mellowed. Friends said his prose and commentary lacked the bite and lash of his earlier years. He was no longer the angry outsider. The Buckleys were friends and of the Reagans and occasional guests at the White House.

"I had much more fun criticizing than praising," Buckley told The Washington Post in 1985. "I criticize Reagan from time to time, but it's nothing like Carter or Johnson.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented Buckley the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He continued to write a column for National Review until his death.

His wife died last year.

Survivors include a son, writer Christopher Buckley of New York and Washington; and two grandchildren.

© 2008 The Associated Press
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