American Man of Letters William F. Buckley, Jr., Dies at 82

William F. Buckley, Jr., 1925-2008

William F. Buckley Jr., who deployed a refined, astute mind to elevate classical conservatism to the center of American political discourse, passed away on Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 82. In 1955, Mr. Buckley founded the most influential conservative magazine, The National Review, and later hosted one of television’s longest-running programs, Firing Line. He also found the time to write more than 45 books, ranging from sailing odysseys to spy novels to celebrations of his own dashing daily life, and to edit five more.

Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was in creating a form of conservatism that was not simply electoral Republicanism, but rather conservatism as a system of ideas. The persuasiveness of his arguments rested upon his constant preoccupations with what he believed was best for the national interest and his emphasis upon the need for a higher morality. He rose to prominence during a period in American history when there was a whole generation of talented writers who were fascinated by political themes, authors such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, William Styron and James Baldwin. Like them, he attracted controversy like a magnet.

Throughout his life, Buckley had a robust reputation as a man who just loved to engage in good arguments, especially, of course, when he won. And many of his adversaries found that they were no match for his razor-sharp, sardonic wit. In 1967, one of his enemies wrote, “Mr. Buckley, you are the mouthpiece of that evil rabble that depends on fraud, perjury, dirty tricks, anything at all that suits their purposes. I would trust a snake before I would trust you or anybody you support.” To which Buckley responded, “What would you do if I supported the snake?

People of all political persuasions came to view his life and escapades as a kind of art form, from his racing through New York City streets on a motorcycle, to his then startling opinions like favoring the decriminalization of marijuana. In 1965, Mr. Buckley made an exceedingly unrealistic run for mayor of New York. When asked what he would do if he won, he answered, “Demand a recount.” He ended up receiving about 13% of the popular vote. He always carried himself with a clever aura of pure mischief and was often described as the liberals’ favorite conservative.

In his last years, when honors like the Presidential Medal of Freedom had begun to come his way, Mr. Buckley began to wind down his frenetic schedule of writing and public speeches. Nevertheless, even in those times, Mr. Buckley re-emerged in 2006 to command wide attention by publishing an article in Commentary Magazine that boldly criticized the war in Iraq as a dismal failure. “One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed,” he wrote, “…Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven’t proved strong enough.”

Buckley Calls The Iraq War a Failure

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