Tribute to William F. Buckley Jr.

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Tribute to William F. Buckley Jr.

Oct 20, 1999 4 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, PhD

Founder and Former President

Heritage Trustee since 1973 | Heritage President from 1977 to 2013

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 News.

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 side.

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 mongoose.

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 laughter.

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. Roosevelt.

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 this century.

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 infrastructure.

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 to conservatives.

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 great man.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.

Remarks made on Oct. 20, 1999, upon presenting the Luce Award to William F. Buckley Jr.

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