Author, editor, and political activist, William F. Buckley, Jr. (born 1925) helped to create the modern conservative political movement. His journal, National Review, prepared the way for the presidential terms of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
William F. Buckley, Jr., was born in New York City on November 24, 1925. His father made a fortune in the oil fields of Mexico and gave his ten children personal tutors and exclusive Roman Catholic private schools for their educations. Buckley spent his early years in England and France and inherited his father's self-confidence and strong convictions. As a child of six, for instance, he wrote the king of England demanding that Great Britain pay its World War I debts to the United States.
Buckley served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, then entered Yale University and graduated with honors in 1950. In 1951 he examined his university education in his first book, God and Man at Yale. The 25-year-old Buckley wrote that he entered Yale with a firm belief in Christianity, limited government, and the free enterprise system. But he found Yale's teachers, courses, and textbooks showed little sympathy for Christianity and private property. Instead, they favored secular values and advocated centralized government planning. Buckley urged his fellow Yale alumni to elect university trustees who would reform the university and fire atheist and socialist faculty. Academic freedom, Buckley argued, was a superstition that denied the university's right to promote ideas and values essential to a good education.
Buckley's criticism of higher education was followed by an equally controversial defense of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. In McCarthy and his Enemies (1954) coauthors Buckley and L. Brent Bozell argued that the senator deserved credit for alerting Americans to the danger of Communist subversion. This achievement, they reasoned, overshadowed McCarthy's rough tactics and excesses.
In 1955 Buckley established the biweekly journal National Review to promote conservative ideas and influence national affairs. Conservatives such as Buckley believed American politics was still dominated by liberal New Deal Democrats and by Republicans such as President Dwight Eisenhower who continued their policies. National Review published sharp polemical articles and reflective essays challenging conventional political ideas and proposing conservative alternatives.
As editor, the youthful Buckley brought together older established writers from three schools of thought. Libertarian writers such as Max Eastman and free market economists such as Milton Friedman favored individual freedom over social equality and opposed government regulation of the economy. Traditionalist scholars such as Russell Kirk valued religion and classical education and lamented the results of secular thinking and technical education. Anti-communist writers such as Whittaker Chambers urged Americans to guard against the power of the Soviet Union and the ideas of Karl Marx. National Review provided a forum for these conservative thinkers and created a popular audience for their ideas.
While National Review concentrated its attacks on liberalism, the journal also helped to define modern conservatism by rejecting anti-semitism, the individualist philosophy of the writer Ayn Rand, and the conspiracy theories of the right-wing John Birch Society and its founder, Robert Welch.
In the 1960s conservatism changed from a set of political ideas to an organized political movement. While continuing to edit National Review, Buckley turned to political activism. In 1960 he helped found a national student activist group, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). YAF members were prominent in opposing the 1960s student protest movement against the Vietnam War. In 1961 Buckley and several others formed the New York Conservative Party to challenge the state's liberal Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller. And in 1965 Buckley was the Conservative Party's candidate for mayor of New York City.
Although he received only 13.4 percent of the vote, Buckley's campaign for mayor undermined the influence of liberal ideas on New York politics. With sharp arguments and a keen wit, Buckley questioned the role of government in solving urban problems. His published an account of the campaign, The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966), ridiculed New York City's divided politics of race, religion, and ethnicity and offered innovative approaches to the problems of poverty and welfare dependency.
Buckley's many writings reflected his active engagement with the world of social and political events. He confessed that he had little interest in personal introspection. And he did not write a major study of conservative political philosophy, preferring to focus his debater's skills on current affairs.
In national politics Buckley promoted the presidential candidacies of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. In 1971, however, he suspended his support of Nixon over the president's domestic policy of wage and price controls and his foreign policy of detente with the Soviet Union and China. He also attacked President Gerald Ford for failing to meet with the Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And he angered many fellow conservatives by supporting the Carter administration's Panama Canal treaties. Buckley's controversial reactions to public events were aired on his weekly television interview program Firing Line, in his syndicated newspaper columns, National Review articles, and in the several volumes collecting his journalistic writings which appeared every few years starting in 1963. His political stances often surprised those who believed they could predict his political outlook. For instance, in 1996 he asserted in National Review, along with six other writers, that drugs should be legalized because of the United States' losing battle in the drug war. Buckley also published Cruising Speed (1971) and Overdrive (1983), amusing event-filled diaries of single weeks in his busy life.
Buckley later moved in new directions. He showed no interest in holding political office even though his friend Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Buckley began writing a series of best-selling spy novels. Their central character is a dashing CIA agent named Blackford Oakes who uncovers Communist treachery during the Cold War years of the early 1960s. Oakes is a man of intellect and wit determined to resist the leftward movement of modern politics. He is not unlike his creator; Buckley has even stated that the first novel in the series, Saving the Queen (1976), is based largely on Buckley's own experiences within the Central Intelligence Agency during his service with their Mexican division from 1951 to 1952. Later novels in the Blackford Oakes series focus on famous Cold War incidents such as the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In these novels, which include Stained Glass, Who's On First, High Jinx, and Mongoose, R.I.P., Buckley creates fictional scenarios against these historical backdrops. He dares to let his imagination roam, contemplating different political choices on the part of real-life world leaders such as John F. Kennedy. In The New York Times Anatole Broyard wrote, "He says, What if-' and then proposes something that is as attractive as it is preposterous, something so nearly commonsensical that it throws the entire Western world into pandemonium."
Buckley also wrote books about one of his most beloved pastimes, sailing. He published Airborne: A Sentimental Journey (1976), Atlantic High: A Celebration (1982), and Racing through Paradise: A Pacific Passage (1987). These books transcended political barriers, appealing to anyone who shared Buckley's love of yachting.
Buckley was honored with a variety of awards, including an Emmy in 1969 from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Firing Line, Man of the Decade Award in 1970 from the Young Americans for Freedom, and the American Book Award in 1980 for Stained Glass. He also received numerous honorary degrees from institutions such as Syracuse University, Notre Dame, and New York Law School.
Buckley's many books and, perhaps more importantly, his many contributions to National Review are the best introduction to his life and thought. George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (1976) is a comprehensive summary of conservative ideas and activities before the Reagan presidency. Other good sources are John Jurdis' biography, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives (1988) and The Buckleys: A Family Examined (1973) by Charles Markmann.