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by William H. Benson

March 6, 2008

     William F. Buckley, Jr., at the age of eighty-two, passed away last week, on Wednesday morning, February 27, at his desk at his home at Stamford, Connecticut, while working on his memoirs of Ronald Reagan. Bill Buckley was a unique American, a Renaissance man, multifaceted, and multitalented, and above all else the founder of the conservative movement that captured much of the government and media in the 1980s.

     Charlie Rose once introduced Buckley: “Before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater. Before Goldwater, there was the National Review. And before there was that magazine, there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and that spark in 1980 became a conflagration.”

     As a young man, shortly after graduating from Yale College, Buckley wrote his first book, God and Man at Yale, in which he criticized Yale’s faculty and administration for leaning too heavily upon atheism and the liberal political philosophy. That first book instantly made him a national figure. In 1955, he borrowed $100,000 from his wealthy father and began his own magazine, the National Review, dedicated to crafting a winning alternative to New Deal liberalism.

     Alone, he forged a conservative movement, driving from its ranks the kooks, the oddballs, the anti-Semitics, the isolationists, the John Birchers, and the lovers of Ayn Rand, giving his conservative movement a respected and philosophical edge that fully blossomed under Ronald Reagan. Consistently well-informed and constantly thinking, Bill Buckley was staunchly and unapologetically anti-Communist and anti-Socialist.

     In 1966, he started his own PBS talk show, Firing Line, and for decades, he interviewed America’s leaders and thinkers. His moderate tone, his civilized manners, and his charm and wit won over many potential enemies. An observer said of Bill Buckley, “He didn’t want to be unduly harsh or unfair, and he felt deeply hurt if something he wrote or said hurt someone personally.” This stands in vivid contrast with the shrill type of commentary we often hear from the media pundits today.

     He loved adventure, especially sailing his yacht across the Atlantic. With his wife Patricia, he loved entertaining people of all ages at their home on Park Avenue at 73rd Street: both young college graduates and retired business leaders, giving each a chance to stand and say whatever. He taught himself to play the harpsichord. An observer said, “With everything he did, he was always doing something more.”       

     Above all else, Buckley loved words, especially long ones: he often claimed he was a sesquipedalian. He wrote 45 books, several of them best-selling mystery novels featuring the CIA agent Blanchford Oakes, as well as 5200 opinion columns. He gave an average of seventy speeches a year. Like his friend Alistair Cooke, he too made a great Masterpiece Theatre host.

      In 1963, he began one of his columns with a rhetorical question: “Have you noticed that the use of an unusual word sometimes irritates the reader to such a point that he will accuse the user of affectation?” His long words truly annoyed and irritated many.

     It is sad but true that Buckley’s conservative movement is now faltering under the guise of George W. Bush’s leadership. In July of 2004, Buckley wrote that if “I had known back then in February of 2003 what we know now I would not have counseled war against Iraq.”

     More than fifty years ago, William F. Buckley, Jr., said, “The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers,” and their conservative opponents. And yet, as one commentator has pointed out, “today with the occupation of Iraq, we have a supposedly conservative administration that has assumed the most daunting and expensive social engineering project in U.S. history, and after nearly five years, there is no end in sight.”

     Alistair Cooke referred to Buckley as the “lover of the last word.” And yet Bill Buckley often admitted that he suffered from “en espirit d’escalier,” a French phrase to describe that which you wish you had said by way of a devastating retort; “Typically it is a sunburst that hits you as you reach the bottom of the staircase.”

     After decades of smoking took his beloved wife Patricia last April, emphysema from smoking cigars did the same to William F. Buckley, Jr, an American sunburst that had reached the bottom of his staircase.