Buckley, William F.

Buckley, William F.
Nov. 24, 1925-Feb. 27, 2008
American magazine editor, columnist and novelist


Newspaper columnist, chief editor of National Review, host of public television's Firing Line, and best-selling author, William F. Buckley Jr. is, in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s words, "the scourge of American liberalism." In the decades that followed World War II he fashioned almost singlehandedly the contemporary American conservative political movement, which enjoyed its greatest triumph in 1980 with the election of President Ronald Reagan. "All great Biblical stories begin with Genesis," columnist George F. Will Jr. proclaimed at the dinner honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of National Review in 1980. "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, and the spark in 1980 had become a conflagration." A laissez-faire capitalist, an anti-Communist, an elitist, and a traditionalist in matters of private and social morality, Buckley defines conservatism simply as "tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us."

The sixth of ten children, William Frank Buckley Jr. was born in New York City on November 24, 1925. His paternal grandfather, the Canadian-born son of an Irish immigrant, was a rancher and sheriff in Texas, where he had moved in 1879. Bill Buckley's father had been expelled from Mexico in 1921 by the government of Alvaro Obregon, reportedly for opposing its anti-church policies. His oil empire, with holdings in seven countries, was estimated at $10,000,000 at the time of his death in 1958. Buckley's mother, the former Aloise Steiner, was born in New Orleans of German, French, and Swiss ancestry. Two of Buckley's sisters, Aloise (Mrs. Benjamin Wilde Heath) and Maureen (Mrs. Gerald O'Reilly), are no longer living. His surviving siblings are John William, Priscilla Langford, James Lane, Jane (Mrs. William Smith 2d), Patricia (Mrs. L. Brent Bozell), Fergus Reid, and Carol (Mrs. Ray Learsy).

Buckley spent his early childhood in France and England, attending exclusive Roman Catholic private schools. A precocious child, he inherited his father's fierce independence and self-confidence. At the age of eight, for example, he fired off a letter to the King of England demanding that Great Britain repay its war debt. Sent to boarding school at fifteen, he waited only two days before advising the headmaster of the school's deficiencies.

On his return to the United States with his family, Buckley obtained his college preparatory education at the Millbrook School in upstate New York. Although the Buckley children received all the material advantages, including private tutoring in languages, their father was determined that they should not grow up to become, in the words of the social historian Stephen Birmingham, "effete Easterners," and he even imported broncos from the West to the family estate in Sharon, Connecticut to help them to develop ruggedness.

After graduating from the Millbrook School in 1943, Buckley spent half a year at the University of Mexico and served from 1944 to 1946 in the United States Army, attaining the rank of second lieutenant in the infantry. He then enrolled at Yale to study economics, political science, and history and soon established himself as a fearsome debater, chairman of the Yale Daily News, and member of Skull and Bones. On obtaining his B.A. degree with honors in 1950, Buckley remained at Yale for an additional year as an instructor in Spanish, a position he had occupied on the Yale faculty since 1947.

One product of Buckley's university experience was his book God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom (Regnery, 1951). Written from a pro-Christian conservative viewpoint, the book was an assault on what he saw as the pervasive antireligious and collectivist teachings in Yale's curriculum, and he advocated among other things the dismissal of faculty members who advocated "values that the governing board at Yale considers to be against the public welfare." The widely reviewed polemic, generally viewed as an indictment of liberal education as a whole, set off a storm of controversy. McGeorge Bundy, a Yale graduate, found it "dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author." Writing in the New Republic (December 3, 1951), Robert Hatch observed that since Buckley was "neither a theologian nor an economist his position is of no great general interest" but found it "astonishing…that the methods he proposes…are precisely those employed in Italy, Germany, and Russia." A more positive note was struck by Peter Viereck, who wrote in the New York Times (November 4, 1951) that "as a gadfly against the smug Comrade Blimps of the left, this important, symptomatic, and widely hailed book is a necessary counterbalance." He noted, however, that Buckley would "need to add to his existing virtues three new ones: sensitivity, compassion, and an inkling of the tragic paradoxes of la condition humaine."

Persuaded by his former professor Willmoore Kendall, Buckley spent a year in the early 1950's as a "covert agent" in Mexico City for the Central Intelligence Agency, working under the CIA operative and author E. Howard Hunt, who was his case officer. In 1952 he joined the staff of the American Mercury as associate editor to William Bradford Huie, but resigned when, after Huie's demotion, the magazine adopted an anti-Semitic stance. Over the next few years, Buckley busied himself as a free-lance writer and lecturer. He once again outraged liberals with his book McCarthy and His Enemies (Regnery, 1954), written with his brother-in-law, the attorney L. Brent Bozell. Conceived as an intellectual defense of Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, the book concluded that McCarthyism, despite its excesses, "is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks."

Making a determined effort to "revitalize the conservative position," in November 1955 Buckley launched the biweekly magazine National Review, a journal of politics and letters that in time became regarded as the most important publication on the American right. Conceived by Buckley as directed to "opinion makers" rather than to "the masses," National Review became, in the words of John Judis, writing in the Progressive (September 1981), "highbrow without being heavy" and directed to "a general intellectual audience rather than simply to the Right." In the first issue Buckley announced that the journal stood "athwart history, yelling 'Stop' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it." Brash in tone and bold in its opinions, National Review attracted wide attention, not all of it positive. Dwight MacDonald, for example, charged that the magazine was edited by "embittered, resentful" individuals, the "intellectually underprivileged who feel themselves excluded from a world they believe is ruled by liberals."

With William Rusher as its publisher and Buckley as its editor in chief, National Review's circulation increased from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 at the time of Senator Barry Goldwater's 1964 Presidential candidacy, leveling off to just under 100,000 in 1980, a figure well exceeding those of the Nation and the New Republic, its liberal counterparts. "National Review is now recognized as a central journalistic document," Buckley told Deirdre Carmody of the New York Times (December 1, 1980). "Even people who oppose it would miss it now, I think, because they recognize that it is a crucible through which conservative thought gets laundered and ventilated." More than a vehicle for conservative opinion, National Review has also been a showcase for young writers. Always quick to recognize talent, Buckley published the early work of Joan Didion, John Leonard, Garry Wills, and Renata Adler along with the writings of conservative stalwarts like Russell Kirk and former leftists like Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Max Eastman, and Whittaker Chambers.

In his third book, Up From Liberalism (McDowell, 1959), Buckley argued that "we must bring down the thing called Liberalism, which is powerful but decadent; and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable." Reviewing the book in the Nation (March 5, 1960), M.D. Reagan called Buckley "the enfant terrible of today's self-styled conservatism" but noted that he was not "conservative in any philosophical sense." Russell Kirk, on the other hand, observed in the Chicago Sunday Tribune (November 8, 1959) that Buckley had matured considerably since his earlier writings and could now be regarded as an "integral conservative."

A political activist as well as a publicist, Buckley has been determined to turn the fragmented, often disreputable conservative movement of the 1950's and early 1960's into a politically powerful and intellectually defensible force. "When Buckley started," one close associate, Marvin Liebman, told John Judis, "a lot of people on the Right had the reputation of being anti-Semites and fascists. They were terrible people. Buckley's objective was to take conservatism away from that group of bad guys and know-nothings and make it respectable. He succeeded more than any person I've known in meeting his objectives." With the help of other National Review writers, in the early 1960's Buckley initiated an attack on the extreme rightist John Birch Society, which was characterized in the pages of Buckley's journal as an organization prone to "false analysis and conspiratorial mania" and whose anti-Communist excesses were ultimately "anti-conservative and dangerous to the interests of the United States." Richard Nixon later commented: "Buckley's articles cost the Birchers their respectability with conservatives. I couldn't have accomplished that. Liberals couldn't have either."

In September 1960 Buckley helped to establish Young Americans for Freedom, whose founding document, the Sharon Statement, hammered out at the Buckley family's Connecticut estate, asserted that the functions of government should be limited to "preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice." Organized to train and educate young conservatives, Young Americans for Freedom numbered some 55,000 members and active supporters by the late 1960's.

In 1961 Buckley, Marvin Liebman, and J. Daniel Mahoney and Kieran O'Doherty formed the New York Conservative party, on whose ticket Buckley ran for Mayor in 1965. He garnered only 13.4 percent of the vote, coming in third behind Republican-Liberal John V. Lindsay and Democrat Abraham D. Beame, but the colorful campaign, which Buckley chronicled in his book The Unmaking of a Mayor (Viking, 1966), put the fledgling party on the political map. The Conservative party came into its own in 1970, when his older brother James L. Buckley was elected to the United States Senate.

For a number of years a free-lance contributor to such magazines as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Review, and Esquire, Buckley greatly expanded his readership when he began his syndicated newspaper column, On the Right, in 1962. Widely praised for their mordant wit as well as for their erudition, the columns were carried by over 300 newspapers by the early 1980's. Along with some of Buckley's National Review articles and other writings, the columns were published by G. P. Putnam in several volumes: Rumbles Left and Right (1963), The Jeweler's Eye: A Book of Irresistible Political Reflections (1968), The Governor Listeth: A Book of Inspired Political Revelations (1970), Inveighing We Will Go (1972), Execution Eve-and Other Contemporary Ballads (1975), and A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts (1978). Buckley's other books include Quotations From Chairman Bill (Arlington House, 1970), compiled by David Franke; Cruising Speed: A Documentary (Putnam, 1971), a diary of one week during 1970; and Four Reforms; A Guide for the Seventies (Putnam, 1973), containing his proposals on welfare, education, taxation, and criminal justice.

Buckley ventured into electronic journalism in 1966, when WOR-TV began to broadcast his weekly interview program, Firing Line. In 1971 the program was moved to the Public Broadcasting Service, which at that time had some 170 stations under its control. Produced by Warren Steibel, Firing Line, with its lively exchanges, dominated by Buckley's acidulous wit, made its host a national media celebrity. His guests over the years have included such diverse personalities as William Kunstler, Billy Graham, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Hugh Hefner, Groucho Marx, Huey Newton, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Bernadette Devlin, Enoch Powell, Muhammad Ali, Noam Chomsky, aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Malcolm Muggeridge, Jorge Luis Borges, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter-who made his first national television appearance on Buckley's program. In 1969 Firing Line won an Emmy award for outstanding program achievement.

In 1967 Buckley delivered lectures on municipal government at the New School for Social Research, and in 1973 he was Froman Distinguished Professor at Russell Sage College. Appointed in 1969 by President Nixon to the five-member advisory board of the United States Information Agency, he resigned in 1972 because of disagreements with the Nixon Administration but accepted appointment the following year as a United States delegate to the U.N. General Assembly. That assignment resulted in his book United Nations Journal; A Delegate's Odyssey (Putnam, 1974), in which he assailed the General Assembly for the anti-Americanism prevailing in its ranks but defended, on the whole, United States membership in the world organization.

Over the years Buckley has played an influential role in bolstering conservative support for the Presidential campaigns of such Republican leaders as Senator Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. In 1971 he announced a "suspension of support" for President Nixon and endorsed the right-wing Ohio Republican Congressman John M. Ashbrook in his primary election challenge to the President who, Buckley and Ashbrook believed, had abandoned conservative principle by instituting wage and price controls, making overtures to China, and pursuing a policy of detente with the Soviet Union. But when the Ashbrook insurgency collapsed, Buckley once more gave his allegiance to the President. He again withdrew his support in April 1974 when, as a consequence of the Watergate scandal, he joined with his brother, Senator James L. Buckley, in calling for Nixon's resignation.

After Ronald Reagan failed to win the 1976 G.O.P. Presidential nomination, Buckley gave his support to incumbent President Gerald R. Ford. Although he considered the Ford Administration weak in its opposition to Soviet Communism, citing for example the President's failure in 1975 to meet with Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he refused to support a last-ditch effort of disaffected rightwingers to form a new political party in opposition to the Ford candidacy. When Reagan won the 1980 Republican nomination and went on to defeat Jimmy Carter in the November electoral landslide, political observers noted that Buckley's conservative movement had finally triumphed, and National Review staffers, long accustomed to being in opposition to prevailing policies, quipped that they were now working for an "Establishment organ."

Noting Buckley's growing prominence in establishment circles, some political observers detected a mellowing of his earlier "radical conservatism." Although as a devout Roman Catholic he remained firmly opposed to abortion, he has taken a less rigid stand on such issues as prostitution and homosexual rights, and in 1972 he angered some conservatives by advocating decriminalization of the use of marijuana. In Four Reforms he modified his earlier opposition to federally financed social welfare measures, urging that federal welfare spending be continued but proposing its limitation to states with per capita income below the national average. On most foreign policy issues Buckley has remained squarely on the right, staunchly supporting, for example, the Chilean military regime, but he parted company with many fellow conservatives in 1978, when he supported the Carter Administration's Panama Canal treaties as being in the best interest of the United States.

Buckley's passion for justice was demonstrated in the case of Edgar H. Smith Jr., a New Jersey death row inmate, who he felt had been unjustly convicted of a 1957 murder. He wrote the introduction to Smith's book Brief Against Death (Knopf, 1968) and helped him to finance the legal moves that resulted in his release from prison in 1971. But when Smith ultimately confessed to the murder after being sentenced to life imprisonment on a kidnapping charge in 1977, Buckley admitted that he had been misled and asserted that Smith must never be released from custody.

In 1979, Buckley was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission, along with three associates, of perpetrating a complicated stock-fraud scheme involving the Connecticut-based Starr Broadcasting Group, Inc., of which he was chairman from 1969 to 1978. Buckley neither admitted nor denied the charges but insisted that he had never "intentionally misled anyone." The matter was settled when Buckley agreed to return an estimated $600,000 in cash and stock to the corporate shareholders.

Since the mid-1970's Buckley has channeled his literary energies into the novel, with a series of highly successful spy thrillers, published by Doubleday. The first, Saving the Queen (1976), introduced the hero, Blackford Oakes, a handsome Ivy Leaguer who battles international Communism-and seduces the fictitious Queen Caroline of Great Britain. "People are tired of decadent and unattractive heroes," Buckley has said, as quoted in the New York Times (March 30, 1980). "With Blackford Oakes I wanted to create an anti-anti-hero, to recreate Billy Budd. I'm moving in the opposite direction from Graham Greene and John Le Carre. I don't like creepy protagonists."

Saving the Queen was followed in rapid succession by Stained Glass (Doubleday, 1978), Who's On First (Doubleday, 1980), and Marco Polo, If You Can (Doubleday, 1982), best-sellers that proved, in the words of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, that "not only can Buckley execute the thriller as well as nearly anybody working in the genre-and a good deal better than some who have been working at it for many books-but also that he threatens to turn this form of fiction into effective propaganda for his ideas."

Buckley's cosmopolitan outlook has resulted in what he has called "transideological friendships" with such liberals as Murray Kempton and John Kenneth Galbraith. "I find him a fascinating person," the socialist Michael Harrington once said, "one of the most liberal persons I've met-not at all pompous or self-centered and enjoyable to be with." On the other hand, Buckley has for years carried on a bitter feud with the liberal writer Gore Vidal. The conflict culminated in a libel suit, won by Buckley in 1972, after Vidal had compared his views to "those of the founders of the Third Reich" in a 1969 Esquire article.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Patricia Aldyn Austin Taylor of Vancouver were married on July 6, 1950. They have a son, Christopher Taylor Buckley, whose employment has included working as a speechwriter for Vice-President George Bush. Tall, trim, and athletic, Buckley enjoys skiing, painting, gliding, swimming, riding, and playing the piano and harpsichord. He has many honorary degrees and holds a number of distinctions, including the Freedom Award of the Order of Lafayette. His book Airborne: A Sentimental Journey (Macmillan, 1976) is a critically acclaimed account of his crossing the Atlantic in his sailboat in 1975. Its sequel, Atlantic High: A Celebration (Doubleday, 1982), describes a thirty-day voyage he took in 1980 from the West Indies to Spain in his ketch, the Sealestial. Both books are replete with philosophical commentary and reminiscences by Buckley and his crew.

Recalling his encounter with Buckley, John Judis found him "impeccably dressed in a dark blazer and loafers, head typically arched backwards like that of an aging preppy sardonically surveying the incoming freshmen." To Charles Lam Markmann, Buckley appeared "brash…, tricky, skillfully savage, capable of great tenderness, a lover of language and music and color and form and mountains and the sea, a scintillating performer with that precise blend of the aristocratic and the faintly vulgar that virtually no one can resist."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License