November 24, 2005
A Journalist For the Ages
WASHINGTON -- In
his 40th anniversary toast to his Yale class of 1950, William
F. Buckley said, ``Some of us who wondered if we would ever be
this old now wonder whether we were ever young.'' Those who were
not young 40 years ago, in 1965, can have no inkling of what fun
it was to be among Buckley's disciples as he ran for mayor of
New York vowing that, were he to win, his first act would be to
demand a recount.
Murray Kempton, the
wonderful liberal columnist who later joined Buckley's eclectic
legion of friends, wrote after Buckley's first news conference
that the candidate ``had the kidney to decline the usual humiliation
of soliciting the love of the voters, and read his statement of
principles in a tone for all the world that of an Edwardian resident
commissioner reading aloud the 39 articles of the Anglican establishment
to a conscript assemblage of Zulus.'' For conservatives, happy
days were here again.
Back then, espousing
conservatism was regarded by polite society, then soggy with that
era's barely challenged liberalism, as a species of naughtiness,
not nice but also not serious. Buckley, representing New York's
Conservative Party, which was just three years old, won 13 percent
of the vote. When the winner, John Lindsay, limped discredited
from office eight years later, Bill's brother Jim had been elected,
on the Conservative line, U.S. senator from New York.
for whom the nation should give thanks, turns 80 on Thanksgiving
Day, and National Review, the conservative journal he
founded in the belly of the beast -- liberal Manhattan -- turned
50 this month. It is difficult to remember, and hence especially
important to remember, the slough of despond conservatism was
Robert Taft, for more than a decade the leading conservative in
elective office, had died in 1953. Joseph McCarthy had tainted
conservatism in the process of disgracing himself with bile and
bourbon. President Eisenhower had so placidly come to terms with
the flaccid consensus of the 1950s that the editor of U.S.
News & World Report, the most conservative newsweekly,
suggested that both parties nominate Eisenhower in 1956.
Review demurred. When it nailed its colors -- pastels were
not encouraged -- to its mast and set sail upon the choppy seas
of American controversy, one novel on the best-seller list was
Sloan Wilson's ``The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,'' voicing the
1950s' worry about ``conformity.'' National Review's premise
was that conformity was especially egregious among the intellectuals,
that herd of independent minds. The magazine is one reason why
the phrase ``conservative intelligentsia'' is no longer an oxymoron.
National Review (circulation then: 100,000) did what
the mighty Hearst press had never done -- determined a major party's
presidential nomination. Barry Goldwater's candidacy was essentially
an emanation of National Review's cluttered office on
East 35th St. Which is why an audience of young Goldwaterites
took it so hard when, two months before the election, Buckley
warned them that bliss would be a bit delayed:
of the present occasion is to win recruits whose attention we
might never have attracted but for Barry Goldwater; to win them
not only for November the third, but for future Novembers; to
infuse the conservative spirit in enough people to entitle us
to look about us, on November fourth, not at the ashes of defeat,
but at the well-planted seeds of hope, which will flower on a
great November day in the future, if there is a future.''
It arrived 16 years later.
Author of more than
4,000 columns, and still adding two a week; author of 47 books,
18 of them novels; host of the ``Firing Line'' television program
for 34 years; a public speaker, often making as many as 70 lectures
and debates a year, for almost 50 years; ocean mariner; concert
harpsichordist -- his energy reproaches the rest of us. Married
to a woman who matches his mettle, his proposal to her, made when
he called her away from a card game, went like this:
He: ``Patricia, would
you consider marriage with me?''
She: ``Bill, I've
been asked this question many times. To others I've said no. To
you I say yes. Now may I please get back and finish my hand?''
Buckley, so young
at 80, was severely precocious at 7 when he wrote a starchy letter
to the king of England demanding payment of Britain's war debts.
Seventy-three years on, Buckley's country is significantly different,
and better, because of him. Of how many journalists, ever, can
that be said? One.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group