William F. Buckley Jr., conservative icon, dies

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr., who as author, journalist, and polysyllabic television personality did more to popularize conservatism in post-New Deal America than anyone other than Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, died yesterday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 82.

The cause of death was unknown, but his assistant, Linda Bridges, said Mr. Buckley had been ill with emphysema.

"America has lost one of its finest writers and thinkers," President Bush said in a statement.

Mr. Buckley's political importance has long been acknowledged across the political spectrum. Pat Buchanan, the three-time presidential candidate, once called him "the spiritual father of the movement," while the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called Mr. Buckley "the scourge of American liberalism." Although Schlesinger, very much a man of the left, did not mean it as a compliment, Mr. Buckley cheerily took it as such.

Good cheer was a key element in Mr. Buckley's success. Not only did it sustain him during the '50s and '60s, when his brand of conservatism claimed few adherents, but it also helped earn him an audience - and grudging acceptance - among the liberal elite.

Indeed, Schlesinger became a friend of Mr. Buckley's, as did such other eminent liberals as the activist Allard Lowenstein, the columnist Murray Kempton, and the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Mr. Buckley's personal charm was one of several sources from which he derived so large an influence. He was also the author of more than 40 books. Although many were not about politics, all his early ones were and they tended to attract wide attention.

In 1955, Mr. Buckley founded National Review, which he edited for the next 35 years. "It was a pretty sclerotic situation [on the Right] when National Review started out," he recalled in a 2001 Globe interview. "Our launch reflected a pent-up appetite."

The columnist George F. Will (the magazine's onetime Washington editor) said at a 25th anniversary celebration, "Before Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review, there was Bill Buckley, with a spark in his mind." That spark, Will noted, eventually became "a conflagration." One sign of that conflagration was circulation: The magazine is America's most widely read political journal.

National Review also turned into a great incubator of young writers, courtesy of Mr. Buckley's keen eye for talent. Among those who worked for the magazine early in their career were Will, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, John Leonard, Richard Brookhiser, and David Brooks. In one of the tributes the magazine posted online yesterday, Senator John McCain praised Mr. Buckley as "a man of tremendous vision and big ideas."

"When conservatism was a lonely cause, he bravely raised the standard of liberty and led the charge to renew the principles and values that are the foundation of our great country," said McCain, a GOP presidential candidate.

The success of National Review led to Mr. Buckley's being offered a syndicated newspaper column in 1962. At its height, the twice-weekly column ran in more than 300 papers, including The Boston Globe.

Four years later, he debuted as host of a television debate program, "Firing Line." It ran for 33 years and brought him an audience greater than that for his books, magazine, and column combined.

It also made Mr. Buckley a celebrity, which may have been the most important contributor to his influence. Looking at their television screens, viewers didn't see a conservative in the mold of a Robert Taft or Calvin Coolidge - someone pinched, drab, reserved. Instead, Mr. Buckley was dashing, witty, almost preposterously energetic.

"On TV, Buckley is a star," wrote the journalist Theodore White. "His haughty face, its puckering and hesitation as he lets loose a shaft of wit, would have made him Oscar Wilde's favorite candidate for anything."

Mr. Buckley became one of the most mimicked men in America, thanks to his many distinctive attributes and even-more-distinctive mannerisms. They ranged from slouching in his seat and carrying a clipboard to darting his tongue and waggling his brows. Above all, there was his High Church accent and luxuriantly Latinate vocabulary.

Keeping Mr. Buckley from self-parody was the great zest he unfailingly displayed, whether in print, in person, or on screen. That sense of boundless enthusiasm - for sailboats, the harpsichord, cavalier King Charles spaniels, or anti-Communism, to name just four of his passions - made Mr. Buckley's aristocratic manner seem not so much patronizing as playful.

He came by such a manner naturally. Born on Nov. 24, 1925, in New York City, William Frank Buckley Jr. was the sixth of 10 children of a wealthy oilman, his namesake, and Aloise (Steiner) Buckley. A devout Catholic, he was educated by tutors and at boarding schools in England and the United States.

From an early age, he lacked neither opinions nor the willingness to express them. At 7, he wrote the king of England to demand repayment of Britain's World War I debt to the United States.

Mr. Buckley spent two years in the Army, then entered Yale in 1946. He was in his element there (he was chairman of The Yale Daily News and a member of Skull & Bones, the premier undergraduate secret society) but also deeply alienated. That alienation produced "God and Man at Yale" (1951), Mr. Buckley's first book. Its condemnation of the university's secular-humanist ethos caused a sensation - and established its author's reputation.

After a year in Mexico working for the Central Intelligence Agency (an experience that would inform Mr. Buckley's Blackford Oakes espionage novels), he returned to the United States. He wasted no time reentering the political fray. Mr. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell, his brother-in-law, published a book, "McCarthy and His Enemies" (1954). While not completely approving of the methods Senator Joseph McCarthy employed in his campaign against Communist subversion, the authors nonetheless defended him as heading "a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks."

A brief stint working for The American Mercury magazine convinced Mr. Buckley that the United States needed a new organ of conservative opinion: National Review. "I want intelligence, but no crackpottery," he announced. "But I want some positively unsettling vigor, a sense of abandon, and joy, and cocksureness that may, indeed, be interpreted by some as indiscretion."

In 1965, Mr. Buckley tried his hand at politics, running for mayor of New York on the Conservative Party ticket. Asked how many votes he expected to get, he replied, "Conservatively speaking, one."

In fact, he ended up with 13.4 percent of the vote. The idea hadn't been to win office - he once said that his first act if elected would be to demand a recount - but gain attention for Mr. Buckley's ideas. His strong showing was the first indication that Goldwater's landslide defeat in the 1964 presidential race might not be an end but a beginning.

Mr. Buckley's mayoral bid led to "Firing Line." Consciously modeled on the "Friday Night Fights" boxing telecasts, the program presented him floating like a butterfly and stinging with his clipboard. It gave birth to what would become a television standby, the broadcast pundit.

His televised punditry got Mr. Buckley into trouble in 1968, when he and the novelist Gore Vidal squared off as analysts on ABC during the Democratic convention. Vidal so enraged Mr. Buckley that at one point he shouted on air, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddam face."

The recipient of numerous honorary degrees and an Emmy Award for "Firing Line," Mr. Buckley was given the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1991.

In his 2001 Globe interview, Mr. Buckley described his role in life this way: "My mission was mostly combative, to try to insist - beginning at school - there was another way of looking at things."

Mr. Buckley's wife, Patricia (Taylor) Buckley, died last year. He leaves a son, Christopher, the humorist and novelist, of Washington; three sisters, Priscilla Buckley of Sharon, Conn., Patricia Bozell of Washington, D.C., and Carol Buckley of Columbia, S.C.; two brothers James L. of Sharon, Conn., and F. Reid of Camden, S.C.; a granddaughter; and a grandson.

Material from wire services was included in this report.

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