After William F. Buckley, Jr. died this week, I was asked if I would be writing about him in Friday’s column. No, I replied, realizing I didn’t feel I had much to say about him that wouldn’t be much more vividly expressed by those who had known and worked for him. I never had the pleasure of meeting him; I have never written for National Review. I did attend Yale—and as a student with conservative views—so I feel some loose connection to what I know of the ideas expressed in God and Man at Yale. Still, my first editorial job was working for Irving Kristol at The Public Interest, which placed me on the neoconservative side of opinion journalism, even if that is not where I find myself now.
In reading through some of the commentary on Buckley’s passing, we are all reminded of what a singular presence and force he was. I am also quite struck by the absence of anyone remotely like him today. Not that there should be or even could be—or, indeed, ever was before. But it is the case that our politics are today as fragmented and “diverse” as our satellite television menus, and in the resulting condition of diffusion and repetition, the kind of exhuberantly cultured originality that marked William F. Buckley seems unlikely to emerge.
It is also true that as a society we no longer admire the kind of American aristocrat that Buckley came to represent, nor the kind of erudition and virtuostic wordplay he perfected. Such “elitism” is out of style. It’s not the wealth and priviledge part that 21st-century America deems outmoded (think rapper “bling” and Wall Street bonuses), although the WASP establishment (from which Buckley, as a Catholic, it is always said, did not emerge) is in permanently apologetic retreat. But the pursuit of cultural refinement is now seen, to use the vernacular of another decade, as a Big Turn-off.
Buckley is well-known for founding National Review, which became the epicenter of a coalescing modern conservatism. In no small part, the magazine helped drive the political success of Ronald Reagan along with other 20th-century conservatives who triumphed over 20th-century Communism abroad and, for a time, 20th-century Big Government at home. This is an epic accomplishment for one man fueled by the power of the pen and a supremely sparkling wit.
In reflecting on Buckley’s death this week, it is sobering to note that the victory over Communism is almost two decades old; the more temporary reversals of Big Government have vanished. As the Free World again faces an ideological foe of Western-style liberty and identity-supressing multiculturalism at home, where do we turn now?
William F. Buckley, Jr., RIP.