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A brave defender of the Christian West

William F. Buckley Jr. was the indispensable man of American conservatism in the 20th century

William F. Buckley Jr. addresses the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 4, 1965. Associated Press

A brave defender of the Christian West
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William F. Buckley Jr., the famous founding editor of National Review, had many outstanding attributes. Milton Friedman said his greatest talent was for friendship. But one might also argue that Buckley’s most impressive quality was his energy. During his career, Buckley wrote 50 books, starred in nearly 1,500 episodes of his television show Firing Line, and wrote some 6,000 columns. A great many of the books were bestsellers. Firing Line had virtually every significant cultural and political figure as a guest on the show. His columns achieved syndication in major newspapers across the nation. And this was the era of the big city papers. He famously wrote the columns virtually as fast as he could type them. The man was always in motion, whether traveling to speaking engagements, skiing, or sailing. He lived with a kinetic force that is almost unimaginable for the typical human being.

Now, roughly 16 years after his death, the PBS American Masters series has made Buckley a subject of one of its documentaries. Though some conservatives have complained, I felt the result captures Buckley quite well. It is true that it dwells to some extent on his racial tone deafness in his 1965 Cambridge Union debate with James Baldwin and his loss of temper in his 1968 convention appearance with Gore Vidal, but the overall result treats Buckley, in my mind, as the cultural treasure he was. While the documentary fails to acknowledge Buckley’s later forthright admission he was wrong on race in his younger days, it does note his regret at letting Vidal arouse him to a fever pitch of anger. It was a hard pill to swallow for one of the most self-controlled men of his age.

One of the best aspects of the documentary is how well it understands Buckley from a religious point of view. We hear his son Christopher saying that his father’s molten core was his Christian (and Catholic) faith. Nothing mattered as much to him. It may also explain his generosity, which is the characteristic of Buckley in which Christopher takes the most pride.

There are some, hearing this claim about Buckley’s faith, who may take issue with it. He was, after all, best known as a defender of limited government and free markets. Was his Christian faith not simply incidental to his status as an enthusiast of the American founding and a critic of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal? The reality is that Buckley was a man of the 20th century who served as an infantryman in the war against German and Italian fascism and then a determined adversary of Soviet and Chinese totalitarianism. The Catholic ideas of subsidiarity and Protestant notions such as Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty were not alien to the Christian faith, but reasonable deductions from Christian principles—especially in an age that treated men like parts in a machine. Buckley’s determination to keep the state within proper bounds was in keeping with his devout Christian belief.

Buckley was somehow both winsome and aggressive.

The documentary does a wonderful job of demonstrating just how important Buckley was to American politics of the 20th century. It would seem a preposterous thesis that the editor of a niche publication like National Review could become the indispensable man of American conservative politics, but the sketch is shockingly simple to draw. Without Buckley, there is no Barry Goldwater nomination in 1964. And without Goldwater’s run (and the coalition it formed), there is little chance that Ronald Reagan (a great friend of Buckley’s and a National Review reader) would have ascended to the California governor’s office and later the presidency.

Another point that comes across nicely is just how much Buckley’s personal style contributed to his success in American politics and culture. Who is the last conservative intellectual to make repeated appearances of The Tonight Show, to have impersonations done by comedians, and to become such a well-known figure that one of Robin Williams’ Genie personalities in Aladdin is clearly an homage to Buckley? How could it be that a homeschooled, super-Catholic kid, born to a large family ruled by an oil tycoon father could so readily connect with the American imagination? Somehow Buckley did it. And much of how he did it was through intelligence, humor, and fearlessness.

Today’s conservatives should spend more time studying Buckley, who has generally receded in the minds of anyone under 40. We argue about winsomeness versus aggressiveness. Buckley was somehow both winsome and aggressive. If you doubt his aggressiveness, just watch Firing Line. His introductions of opponents were often provocative. In debate, he gave no quarter. When asked why Bobby Kennedy never came on the show, Buckley quipped, “Why does boloney reject the grinder?” Yet, somehow, even many of his opponents loved him. How did Buckley do it? Because he had substance, wit, and generosity to match his love of the fight.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the provost and dean of faculty at North Greenville University in South Carolina. He is the author of The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul. His work has appeared in a wide variety of other books and journals. He is formally affiliated with Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the Land Center at Southwestern Seminary.

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