The one time I met William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008), the great figure of modern American conservatism, he was gracious and inviting. In 1991, he was the commencement speaker for my graduating class at Grove City College. My friends were puzzled at how excited I was to have the eminent Mr. Buckley speak to my classmates and our families. His speech bore the title, “Reflections on Current Contentions,” which was the generic title he used for most of his public-speaking appearances. I can’t remember any particular phrases of the speech, but I do recall that his manner of speech was calm and reasoned. His aim was not to shock or scandalize. After commencement, there was a luncheon attended by parents, graduates and school officials, and there I went to Buckley’s table, interrupted his lunch, and expressed my appreciation for his life’s work. We talked briefly and he told me that if I were ever in New York that I should come by and see him.
Buckley’s graciousness was certainly a product of well-mannered character, but it also speaks to how he helped shape the modern conservative movement. He wanted to invite people into the fold. He wanted to show that one could be intellectual and be a conservative. For Buckley, conservatism was not a narrow sect with specifically defined beliefs; instead, conservatism was a set of inclinations and broad goals. Those inclinations included an admiration for the free market, a strong policy of anti-communism, and a respect for traditionalism.
I am far too young to remember the early days of the National Review, the magazine Buckley founded in 1955 and that was for many years the flagship publication of the American conservative movement, but there are excellent accounts of those days when the different elements of the conservative movement argued with each other, both in the pages of the National Review and in editorial meetings. Buckley provided a place for both free-market devotees and traditionalist conservatives. Many of the great conservative intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s reached a broader audience through the pages of the magazine. In his own op-ed column, distributed to hundreds of newspapers across the county, Buckley introduced his readers to arguments, ideas, thinkers, and books. It was in the small rural daily paper to which my parents subscribed that I began reading Buckley.
Buckley was reputed for being a great host of dinner parties, and great hosts bring people together and encourage conversation and even collaboration. He served a similar role for modern American conservatism. Through the National Review, his own writings, and his television show “Firing Line,” Buckley served this great function of connecting modern conservatives. He helped with the growth of conservatism and wanted a movement that was not centered on him, but on key commitments of a free and orderly society.
Buckley wanted a conservative movement that was broadly representative of conservative inclinations, but Buckley also recognized that some of those attempting to shape modern conservatism were harmful to the movement. Buckley and the National Review essentially kicked the John Birch Society, an extreme right-wing organization, out of mainstream American conservatism. In so doing, he lost subscribers and supporters, but he did not believe that irresponsible voices needed a seat at the table.
Buckley will not be remembered as the greatest intellect of the modern conservative movement, although he certainly had a great intellect. He is certainly not the greatest political figure; political office was not his calling. Buckley, however, served a remarkable role in helping to make conservatism respectable, intellectually compelling, and politically viable. To a man who did more than most could accomplish in five lifetimes, may he rest in peace.