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 Bill Buckley’s Sad Farewell 

June 29, 2004 
Over more than half a century, William F. Buckley Jr. has gone from enfant Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.terrible to éminence grise of the American conservative movement. He first made his mark with God and Man at Yale (1951), a small book arguing that his alma mater was promoting left-wing views that would disturb most of its alumni; at the time, in the heat of the McCarthy era, that seemed controversial. It was only natural that his second book should be a defense of Joe McCarthy himself.

In 1955, before he was 30, he founded National Review, which soon became the country’s foremost conservative magazine. Now 78, he has finally relinquished control of the magazine, which is barely recognizable as the one he launched those many moons ago.

National Review was chronically short on money, but, at the beginning, long on writing talent. Its contributors included such brainy and stylish intellectuals as James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, and Richard Weaver. They were not only anti-Communist; they were anti-liberal and, more specifically, anti-Eisenhower, believing that the Republican Party had abandoned the solid principles of Robert Taft.

The star of the show was Buckley himself, who had earned a reputation as a brilliantly witty debater at Yale. One liberal called him “the most dangerous undergraduate Yale has seen in years.” Dangerous! Tweaking liberal noses in those days could get you called a fascist and Nazi by the folks who accused McCarthy of hysterical smears.

Buckley and his magazine made the most of such ironies. They pretty much invented fun-loving conservatism, ploddingly imitated today by Rush Limbaugh. As the country moved leftward in the Sixties, Buckley became the first conservative celebrity, so familiar that comedians got big laughs imitating his haughty demeanor. Nobody else was on hand to nail liberals at every turn.

Today it’s hard to remember how controversial, and exciting, Buckley was in those days. His assimilation to the ranks of the respectable was completed in 1980, when a National Review subscriber, recently deceased, was elected president of the United States. I was on the magazine’s staff at the time, and I remember Bill’s delight in sharing jokes with his pal Ron.

[Breaker quote: 
NATIONAL REVIEW, then and now]Everyone at the magazine loved Bill. His charm was real. Despite his lofty public persona, he was warm, hilarious, and infinitely considerate and generous. A fat book could be written about his quiet good deeds, if anyone could trace them all; he performed them unostentatiously, with tact and delicacy.

Unfortunately, Bill tended to mistake his personal success and Reagan’s political victories for the final triumph of conservatism. He forgave Reagan’s compromises and made some of his own. He didn’t seem to notice that during the Reagan years, the Federal Government continued to grow at a rate that would have horrified Robert Taft. He was nearly as indulgent to the first President Bush, another Yale man, as he had been to Reagan.

In recent years, National Review has become remote from the thing it was in 1955. Buckley has turned it over to young neoconservatives with little conception of its original standards, who have supported the new Bush administration, and especially the Iraq war, with fanatical zeal, without regard to any philosophy that can be called conservative.

Buckley seems to realize this. In announcing his retirement to the New York Times, he admitted that the growth of the Federal Government under the current President Bush “bothers me enormously.” As for the war itself, he added, “With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”

So there spake the founder of National Review. I’ve often wondered if he had qualms about his callow, warmongering successors; I guess I have the answer now.

Sad to reflect that the magazine has forsaken not only its founding purpose — to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop’” — but its founding philosophy of severely limited government. That philosophy was hard enough to reconcile with the Cold War; it’s impossible to square with endless imperialist wars.

It’s some meager consolation that Bill Buckley acknowledges, however implicitly, the distance between the magazine he created and the one from which he has now taken his leave.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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