October 20, 1999
By Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
NEW YORK -- The list of those who have received The Heritage
Foundation's Clare Boothe Luce Award is short but impressive:
Shelby and Kathryn Davis, Ronald Reagan, Jay Van Andel, Rose and
Milton Friedman, the Lloyd Noble family, and Heritage Trustees Tom
Roe and William E. Simon.
Bill Buckley saunters into their ranks this evening for two
reason: because he has fully earned the honor, and because his
natural gait is a saunter. To borrow and revise a phrase from H.L.
Mencken, Bill can saunter sitting down.
My joy in paying tribute to this man is equaled only by my
perplexity in knowing where to begin. He is, of course, the founder
of National Review, a topic I will return to shortly. His lengthy
list of awards includes the Presidential Medal of Freedom,
presented in 1991. He has authored more fiction and nonfiction
books than I could name without turning this into a literary event.
He has sailed the high seas as yachtsman extraordinaire and
performed as harpsichord soloist with symphony orchestras.
And he is the liberal's nemesis and a gadfly nonpareil. Had Bill
lived in ancient Athens, he would surely have been asked by the
city fathers to join Socrates in a bumper of hemlock. I suspect
that something of the sort crossed the minds of the Yale faculty in
the late 1940s when Bill served as editor of the Yale Daily
For it was in that post that the young Buckley began creating
what would come to be recognized as his trademark turbulence: He
impudently and repeatedly pointed out that Yale had become what
geometry said could not exist - an entity with only a left
Faculty members called him a "black reactionary," but the
critics knew better. The Saturday Review said of his first book,
God and Man at Yale: Buckley "writes with a clarity, a
sobriety, and an intellectual honesty that would be noteworthy if
it came from a college president." Forty-eight years later, it
would still be noteworthy at most universities.
To clarity, sobriety and intellectual honesty, we of course must
add: inimitable wit. To his fellow conservatives, Bill's wit is a
bracing tonic that clarifies and invigorates. To his liberal
opponents, it is a peril that they avoid as the cobra avoids the
I recall many years ago during a televised debate, Bill's
opponent foolishly declared that the U.S. invasion of Grenada was
the moral equivalent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Bill
instantly replied: "That is like saying that the man who pushes a
little old lady into the path of a bus is morally equivalent to the
man who pushes her out of its path, because they both push little
old ladies around." The opponent's position dissolved in the
Currying favor with labor unions, Eleanor Roosevelt once vowed
that she would never cross a picket line. In characteristic form,
Bill proposed that conservatives form a picket line around Mrs.
During the Kennedy administration, someone asked Bill why
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had declined repeated invitations to
appear on "Firing Line." Bill answered, "Why does the baloney
reject the grinder?"
And indeed "Firing Line" has functioned as a grinder for those
guests who confused baloney with ideas. But Bill always carried out
his grinding chores with civility, and intelligence -- and of
course wit. The importance of this is not to be understated,
because those on the left have long classified conservatives as
occupying a niche somewhere between boors and barbarians.
Week after week, for the past 34 years, Bill has displaced that
image with one that conservatives and conservatism can wear with
pride. And he accomplished it simply by being himself -- the
consummate and civil defender of conservative principles. Bill has
often devastated an opponent's position, but I have never known him
to devastate an opponent.
I am saddened to note that on December 31, "Firing Line" will
air its final episode. Thus will end an institution that is Bill's
second most important contribution to the rise of conservatism in
The first is, of course, his founding of National Review. In
paying tribute to Bill this evening, we really must measure that
accomplishment on the proper scale. To do that, I want to suggest a
comparison between Bill and an industrial entrepreneur who preceded
him by nearly a century: James J. Hill.
Hill, you may recall, built the Great Northern Railway during
the 1880s. At that time, the American Northwest was still a vast
wilderness. But in it Hill saw boundless opportunities. Defying
obstacles ranging from obstructive town governments to the Rocky
Mountains, Hill hacked his way across the continent, laying rail
from St. Paul to Puget Sound. And unlike his competitors, he did it
without a single government subsidy.
Homesteaders poured into the region and settled along the
railway, on land that Hill provided at little or no cost. They grew
wheat, stored their harvest in his grain elevators and shipped it
to market on his trains. A wilderness region flourished, and James
J. Hill rightly became known as the man who made the American
Northwest. He made it by building the thing without which there
could be no commerce and thus no prosperity: a transportation
In the 1950s, conservatives inhabited a similar kind of
wilderness. We were, as Yogi Berra once said of the Mets,
overwhelming underdogs. We had some of the greatest minds on the
planet, but virtually no infrastructure. It was Bill Buckley who
possessed the vision and determination to build it and make it
work. That is the nature and value of National Review, and the
proper scale on which to measure Bill Buckley's achievement in
founding it. He is the pioneer who opened the marketplace of ideas
But he was no passive steward. Even in those salad years, Bill
had the intellectual credibility to attract the best conservative
thinkers of the day, and they were thinkers of an extraordinary
variety: Russell Kirk, Max Eastman, Frank Meyer, Brent Bozell,
Whittaker Chambers, William Schlamm, James Burnham, John
Chamberlain, Frank Chodorov, Richard Weaver, Donald Davidson, Jack
Kilpatrick, and Bill Rusher, who served as National Review's
publisher for more than three decades. And of course there were
dozens more of that same large caliber.
In looking back, the wonder is that such a diverse company
didn't come to blows and go their separate ways. That they didn't
is one more mark of Bill's genius. For he possessed the tact and
wisdom to convert their friction into a brilliant light that has
illuminated conservatism's course for nearly 50 years.
In the same sense that James J. Hill made the American Northwest
in the 19th century, Bill Buckley made American conservatism in the
20th. It is a rare thing when so much can be so clearly attributed
to one man, and we need no poetic license to say that this is a
Ed Feulner is
president of The Heritage Foundation.
Remarks made on Oct. 20, 1999, upon presenting the Luce Award to William F. Buckley Jr.
The list of those who have received The Heritage Foundation's Clare Boothe Luce Award is short but impressive: Shelby and Kathryn Davis, Ronald Reagan, Jay Van Andel, Rose and Milton Friedman, the Lloyd Noble family, and Heritage Trustees Tom Roe and William E. Simon.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
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