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Standing athwart history, yelling Stop

The Buzz | William F. Buckley Jr. gave conservatism wit and a rudder

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

Say your daddy is rich. Say you're smart. How should you spend his money and your life? William F. Buckley Jr., who died on Feb. 27 at age 82, showed us a rightful way.

Buckley, born in 1925, was the sixth of 10 children fathered by a Catholic oil millionaire. In college he headed the Yale Daily News and joined Skull and Bones, the elite secret society. He gained national attention with his first of at least 55 books, God and Man at Yale: It accused the college of proselytizing for atheism and collectivism.

After a year in the CIA and other short stops, Buckley used $100,000 from his father to start National Review in 1955, a time when American conservatism was largely rudderless. The magazine started slowly, with circulation at 16,000 after two years, but it hit 125,000 as a nine-year-old in 1964, when the candidate it had helped to advance, Barry Goldwater, ran for president. Readers' donations have always subsidized the magazine, which now has a circulation of 155,000.

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National Review was important in many ways. Its wit showed that conservatives weren't hicks. It laid out reasonable alternatives to regnant liberalism. It gave a start to young conservative writers such as George Will, although some-Garry Wills, Joan Didion-later slid to the left.

Some right-wing rantings of the late 1950s and early 1960s-such as John Birch Society founder Robert Welch's charge that President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent-make today's much-vilified conservative talk radio seem tame. Buckley's National Review, though, was edgy but also civil and factual. It stood athwart history, yelling Stop at both liberalism and fever-swamp conservatism.

Buckley gained personal visibility largely through his television program Firing Line, which started on a New York channel and then became the Public Broadcasting Service's response to charges that it blacklisted conservatives. Firing Line starred Buckley consulting his clipboard, arching his eyebrows, licking his lips, and flashing a wolfish grin just before cleverly eviscerating liberal opponents.

The program became the longest-running show hosted by a single host in television history: Its 1966 to 1999 run beat Johnny Carson's record by three years. Buckley became so well-known that the Disney movie Aladdin has the genie transforming himself into the polysyllabic speaker, who leans back in a chair and explains the permutations of the "three wishes" rule.

Buckley playfully ran for mayor of New York in 1965 and took a couple of part-time governmental posts during the Nixon administration, but otherwise stayed out of the journalism-government revolving door that jams the fingers of many editors and writers. Instead, during spare time from his magazine and TV labors, he sailed across the Atlantic, took up playing the harpsichord, and became a novelist, writing 11 action-adventure books starring spy Blackford Oakes.

Buckley married his wife Patricia in 1950: They called each other "Ducky" until she died last April. They had one son, Christopher, also a witty writer. Last Wednesday William F. Buckley, who had recently suffered from diabetes and emphysema, was found dead at his desk in his home. "He might have been working on a column," his son said.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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