The year was 1951. Fresh out of Yale and miffed at the prevailing liberal and collectivist orthodoxy among the intelligentsia, he expressed his dissatisfactions in a book titled God and Man at Yale. Four years later, he founded National Review and set on a path to build an American right at a time when its remnants were in smithereens.
Memories of the Depression lingered on and much of the New Deal consensus on the administrative state prevailed among both major parties. The right was largely thought superannuated, standing in the way of ‘progress.’ Contrarians existed in three camps: the libertarians, the traditionalists and the anti-communists. The cliques on the right denounced the new liberal order but failed to find any common ground.
William F. Buckley Jr., WFB as his friends and colleagues knew him, was the one who amalgamated the three factions. A devout Catholic, an unabashed exponent of free markets and an outspoken anti-communist altogether, Buckley unarguably became the first ecumenical figure of the conservative movement.
When he founded National Review in 1955, Buckley’s mission was not to acquiesce to a particular party line but to proselytise a conservative agenda, endorsing free market economics, a commitment to religious freedom and vociferously opposing communism by confronting the abomination for what it was. Buckley’s magazine made room for the conservative perspective in political debates once again.
It wasn’t until 1960 that another figure grasped the national attention and emulated Buckley’s credenda— Barry Goldwater, in whom WFB saw an ally. Like Buckley, Goldwater was appalled at welfare state policies. In 1964, Goldwater announced his campaign for the presidency and faced off against liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller.
Goldwater ran on a platform calling for a return to the American principles of limited government and free enterprise. Buckley was quick to endorse him. He was highly critical of the social engineering policies espoused by incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” Buckley said of the great experiment, which the nascent Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) adopted as its slogan. The support of Buckley aggrandised the conservative base, which was crucial in Goldwater’s handy victory in the primaries, albeit a landslide defeat in the general to LBJ several months later.
Bill Buckley himself entered the political fray in 1965, running for New York mayor as the Conservative Party candidate against incumbent John Lindsay. When asked in the debate what he’d do if he won, he famously quipped that he’d “demand a recount.” He finished third in the race, capturing 13% of the vote.
Buckley’s efforts however, were far from vain. Despite Goldwater’s monumental loss, there was a conservative alignment in the GOP like never before. The conservative movement was reshaped in Buckley’s image and the far-right John Birch Society had been purged earlier by Buckley’s efforts. Richard Nixon, who ran in 1960 as a moderate, now did not hesitate in calling himself a conservative. In 1970, Bill’s elder brother James won a Senate seat from New York on the Conservative Party ticket, defeating Republican incumbent Charles Goodell and served one term in the Senate.
In 1966, Firing Line made its television debut, running for a record 33 years. Hosted by Buckley, he mesmerised audiences with his polysyllabic exuberance. With guests from all sides of the spectrum discussing a myriad of topics, the show widely influenced public discourse.
When Ronald Reagan ran for Governor of California in 1966, National Review wholeheartedly endorsed his bid. Buckley was also among the first to back his failed Presidential run in 1976, before coming out in ebullient support in 1978. Reagan won in a landslide in 1980 and remained good friends with Buckley throughout, often consulting him on various matters.
It is hard to imagine American conservatism without Buckley, for it would not have existed. From redefining the right to bringing about the Reagan revolution, Buckley’s contribution to the conservative movement is ineffable. Larger than life, with amicable relationships with politicos across the aisle, the bon vivant represented the best in politics and civility.
George Will has put it quite succinctly: “Without Bill Buckley, no National Review. Without National Review, no Goldwater nomination. Without the Goldwater nomination, no conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Without that, no Reagan. Without Reagan, no victory in the Cold War. Therefore, Bill Buckley won the Cold War.” Artful with witticisms, Buckley replied, “That’s a very nice abbreviation, and I hope you will remind historians of it.”
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.