There's no stopping Bill Buckley
LIKE ITS founder, National Review commanded attention early on. The first issue of William F. Buckley Jr.'s magazine -- cover date: Nov. 19, 1955 -- announced its purpose with an editorial that included what must be the most oft-quoted statement any magazine has ever made about itself: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." It went on to describe itself, in a taste of the cocky fun to come, "just about the hottest thing in town."
At the time, Buckley was not yet 30. He had already published a controversial bestseller, "God and Man at Yale," served in the US Army, worked for the CIA, and graduated from Yale, where he'd had a dazzling run as chairman of the Yale Daily News. He would go on to write -- take a deep breath -- 35 nonfiction books, 15 books of fiction, 79 book reviews, 56 introductions or forewords to books written by others, 227 obituary essays, 800-plus editorials or other articles in National Review, 350 articles in periodicals other than National Review, and more than 4,000 newspaper columns.
Those statistics come from a bibliography of Buckley's works published by ISI Books in 2002. But since that volume covers only the first 50 years of Buckley's professional output, all the numbers are a little on the low side.
And that's just his writing. In the past five decades, Buckley has also: edited National Review, which he shaped into an influential journal of opinion; hosted "Firing Line," one of the longest-running talk shows in TV history; and annually delivered scores of public speeches. He has run for mayor of New York, served in the US delegation to the United Nations, sailed yachts across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and mastered the harpsichord.
Yelling Stop? National Review, maybe. Not Buckley.
But lately he has been -- not stopping, no, but slowing down. In 1999, he brought "Firing Line" to an end; he had conducted 1,429 televised dialogues with guests as varied as Margaret Thatcher, Mother Teresa, and Muhammad Ali. The following year he announced that he was retiring from the lecture circuit. As far back as 1990 he had stepped down as day-to-day editor of National Review to become "editor-at-large." And now comes word that after 49 years, he is relinquishing control of the magazine altogether.
Buckley told The New York Times that he is turning over his shares in the journal -- he always owned 100 percent of the voting stock -- to five hand-selected trustees (among them his son, the writer Christopher Buckley). At 78, he said, he recognizes that he must "choose some point to quit or die onstage." And so the publication that blew the wind into the sails of American conservatism must begin preparing itself for something modern conservatives have never known: life without Buckley.
I was a 17-year-old college sophomore when I discovered National Review. A quarter-century later, I no longer recall where I came across my first issue or what was on its cover. What I do recall, vividly, is the thrill of encountering words and arguments that gave shape and coherence to my own inchoate political beliefs. The importance of individual freedom, the dangers of a too-powerful government, the blessings of a free market, the imperative of fighting communism, the indispensability of faith -- these were themes I encountered again and again in the pages of NR.
But it wasn't only the magazine's political content that made it so invaluable. No less wonderful was its style. National Review was feisty, smart, playful, elegant -- just like its editor, whose contributions were the highlight of nearly every issue.
Reading Buckley's prose with a dictionary close at hand, I acquired a great collection of out-of-town words: asymptotic, ineluctable, synecdoche, eristic. Even after all these years, I recall names and references that could have appeared nowhere else, from the National Committee to Horsewhip Drew Pearson -- Buckley's idea of the right way to rein in an egregious columnist -- to "the sainted junior senator from New York," the standard NR reference to Buckley's older brother James, who was elected to the US Senate in 1970.
Long before Rush Limbaugh appeared on the scene, Buckley had mastered the art of witty immodesty. ("I don't stoop to conquer. I merely conquer.") Asked once why Robert Kennedy refused to appear on "Firing Line," he replied: "Why does baloney reject the meat grinder?" Humor has been as much a Buckley/National Review trademark as erudition. "The attempted assassination of Sukarno last week had all the earmarks of a CIA operation," began one editorial comment. "Everyone in the room was killed except Sukarno."
Even without a magazine to run, a TV show to host, or speeches to give, Buckley will continue to make the rest of us feel like hopeless underachievers. The godfather of American conservatism, after all, has never been one for yelling Stop. Even at 78, he remains just about the hottest thing in town.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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