Buckley served as a second lieutenant in the US Army during World War II. After the war, he enrolled at Yale University, where he quickly began a brilliant undergraduate career. Buckley was a conspicuous and controversial conservative at Yale. He rose to the position of editor in chief of the Yale Daily News and was a star debater for the university. Buckley married Patricia Taylor in 1950, and their only child, Christopher Buckley, was born in 1952.
Buckley's time at Yale formed the basis of his 1951 book, God and Man at Yale. Part memoir, part polemic, part educational treatise, God and Man at Yale was a spirited assault on the liberal establishment that Yale symbolized to Buckley. He charged his alma mater with propagating secularism and socialism when its true mission was to instill a respect for Christianity and capitalism in its students. God and Man at Yale made Buckley a public figure at a very young age.
After graduation, Buckley wrote for conservative publications while working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was frustrated by the lack of a good conservative magazine in the United States and, more generally, by the predominance of liberals in the media. This frustration prompted him in 1955 to found a magazine of his own, National Review, which became an anchor for the inchoate conservative movement of the 1950s, with Buckley at its helm. At National Review, Buckley combined three positions that had not previously been synthesized: an esteem for cultural and religious tradition, a belief in the virtues of the free market, and a commitment to a vigorously anticommunist foreign policy. Buckley was also a defender of racial segregation in the 1950s, basing his arguments on a commitment to states' rights and a gradualist approach to social change: his position was an influential one among conservatives. Later in life, Buckley would retract these arguments, as he would the criticism of the civil rights movement that commonly appeared in National Review in the 1950s and 1960s.
The early years of National Review were dominated by the search for a political center that was not equivalent to the status quo of the Dwight Eisenhower ( 1890–1969 ) administration and not susceptible to extremism. One battle was with the John Birch Society and its expansive notion of communist influence in American life. Another battle was with the libertarian novelist and theorist Ayn Rand ( 1905–1982 ), whose secularism was considered a threat to true conservatism, in Buckley's eyes. Finally, Buckley sought to separate American conservatism from anti-Semitism, in part by cooperating with conservative Jewish intellectuals, in part by attacking what intellectual legitimacy anti-Semitism still had on the postwar American Right.
Buckley cultivated a style that mixed polemical flair, erudition, word play, and wit with an unflagging interest in the contemporary cultural and political scene. The basic point was to demonstrate the vitality of the conservative enterprise, the intelligence that it demanded, the opportunities that it faced, and the pleasures it held out to its participants. The magazine's bon vivant editor merrily typified these qualities, offering allies and critics alike the spectacle of a conservatism that did not deign to apologize for itself.
By the early 1960s, Buckley was a figure in the political arena, instrumental to the rise of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater ( 1909–1998 ), whose campaign manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative ( 1960 ), owed much of its content and style to National Review. Goldwater suffered a momentous defeat in the 1964 presidential election, but his subtle victory lay in having gained the nomination in the first place, thereby launching the conservative movement as prime mover of the Republican Party and a force in national politics.
Buckley ran for political office himself in 1965 as the Conservative Party's candidate for mayor of New York City. His anticipated loss was less consequential than the public relations coup of running as an outspoken conservative. Public debates and media attention placed his ideas in the political mainstream of an essentially liberal city.
In 1962, Buckley started writing a nationally syndicated column called On the Right, a chance to narrow the gap between conservative advocacy and the modern media. In 1966, Buckley launched a television show, Firing Line, of which he was the host, selecting his guests and presiding over the programs. It was less a vehicle for conservatism than a theater of political disputation. Some disputes were between ideological adversaries, and some discussions were simply encounters between unexpected interlocutors. In a series of debates broadcast on ABC during the 1968 Democratic Nominating Convention, Buckley locked horns with the writer Gore Vidal ( 1925–2012 ); their verbal altercation resulted in a libel case that was settled out of court.
In 1973, Buckley was named a delegate to the United Nations. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the brief administration of Gerald Ford ( 1913–2006 ), and the unconservative Jimmy Carter administration, Buckley and his fellow editors at National Review were overjoyed by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, a longtime National Review reader. Reagan embodied the three positions Buckley had been trying to fuse since the 1950s: cultural traditionalism, belief in laissez-faire economics, and stalwart anticommunism. Conservative speculation had shaded, over the decades, into a program for conservative action.
Reagan's election in 1980 signaled the arrival of conservatism, as Buckley understood the word. Throughout Reagan's two terms, National Review eagerly applauded the spread of conservative ideas through the government, ideas for which the magazine had been a prominent source. The complicated insider-outsider dynamic that had governed Buckley's career—a Catholic among Protestants, a conservative among liberals—was inverted by Reagan's transformative presidency, after which one could speak of a conservative establishment in Washington, DC, with Buckley its reigning monarch. Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, awarded Buckley a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
In 1990, Buckley retired from his leadership position at National Review. He welcomed the advent of email and of the Internet, yet another medium through which conservative ideas could be expressed, fought over, and promoted. During his two terms, George W. Bush hailed Buckley as the conservative movement's éminence grise. Although Buckley did not explicitly part ways from George W. Bush's policies, he was initially skeptical and ultimately wistful about the Iraq War Bush had initiated. Buckley questioned the war's conservative bona fides.
Political animal that he was, Buckley's writing career was immensely varied. He was the author of popular spy novels, many of which played on Cold War themes. He wrote several travelogues, and he published well-regarded memoirs about his life in politics, about his life in literature, and about his spiritual life. National Review was the heart of his contribution to the conservative movement, but Buckley also engaged in longer-form theoretical writing about conservatism and in the compiling of anthologies of conservative thought.
Buckley was a lover of skiing, of sailing, and of music. He played the piano and the harpsichord, and was especially fond of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. William F. Buckley Jr. died in 2008.
SEE ALSO Conservatism ; Libertarianism ; Limited Government ; Reagan, Ronald .
Bogus, Carl T. Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.
Hart, Jeffrey. The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times. Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2005.
Judis, John B. William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conserva. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.tives
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