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Jewish World Review
Feb. 28, 2008
/ 22 Adar I 5768
The architect of modern conservatism
In the days and weeks ahead, a Niagara of words will be devoted to
William F. Buckley Jr., who died this morning at the age of 82.
It would be hard to overstate the impact that Buckley had on
20th-century American thought and politics. The man who founded National
Review in 1955 and launched "Firing Line" the longest-running public
affairs talk show in television history 11 years later is rightly
celebrated as the father of modern American conservatism. Had there been
no Buckley, there would likely have been no Reagan administration, no
Morning in America, no "Tear down this wall," and no Cold War triumph
for liberty and the West.
It may sometimes be confusing, what with all the intramural squabbling
among libertarian conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives,
and the like, to know exactly what "conservatism" stands for these days.
But Buckley more than anyone made clear that there are things it would
not stand for. His "first great achievement," the Dallas Morning News
noted in 2004, "was to purge the American right of its kooks. He
marginalized the anti-Semites, the John Birchers, the nativists, and
their sort." In their place, beginning in the 1950s, he cleared the way
for the construction of a conservatism of optimism and progress and good
humor. And, above all, of ideas: Ideas about limited government and
individual freedom, about the blessings of the market and the lethality
of Communism, about the importance of religion and the securing of peace
But it wasn't Buckley's ideas alone that made him so influential. It was
his style, too: funny, unflappable, irrepressible, glamorous, gracious.
He could be merciless to the pompous, yet was renowned for his vast
range of friendships. "He inspired and incited three generations of
conservatives, and counting," his successors at National Review wrote
today upon learning of his death. He did so not only through the force
of his ideas and an amazing gift for expounding them, but also by
embodying a conservatism that was cool and fun and merrily
down-to-earth. How many other influential American intellectuals ever
penned a column singing the praises of peanut butter?
In 1999, Buckley was interviewed for "Nightline" by Ted Koppel. "Mr.
Buckley, we have 10 seconds left," Koppel said at the end. "Could you
sum up in 10 seconds?" Buckley replied, simply: "No." In the days ahead,
no one will find it easy to sum up Bill Buckley's extraordinary legacy.
His output was so prodigious and his range so immense that he routinely
made the rest of us "feel like hopeless underachievers," as I wrote in a
column four years ago. Today Buckley's astonishing, history-changing
output comes to an end. His life and his life's work will resonate for
many years to come.
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