Sunday, August 1, 2004

Conservative patriarch Buckley
nears end of his graceful exit



By Hillel Italie
The Associated Press

For decades, the lips of William F. Buckley, the maestro of television's Firing Line and other conservative affairs, would famously curl as he regarded the perceived follies of his liberal opponents.

But on a recent afternoon, the smile is only sweet as he considers any follies of his own, the bumps sustained on what Buckley, a confirmed man of the sea, might call the long voyage of life.

Personal letdowns? No. He has countless friends, loved his parents, has been married for more than 50 years and adores his son, author and humorist Christopher Buckley. Professional setbacks? The Soviet Union is dead, Ronald Reagan an iconic politician and the conservative movement, a movement he helped rejuvenate a half century ago, stronger than ever.

"There's no weltschmerz, or any sadness that permeates my vision," he says during an interview at his Park Avenue duplex in New York. "There isn't anything I reasonably hoped for that wasn't achieved."

Now 78, Buckley has been executing one of the lengthier public withdrawals in recent memory, resigning in 1990 as editor of National Review, subsequently giving up both public speaking and Firing Line and, most recently, announcing he would sell off his controlling shares of the Review, the seminal conservative magazine he founded in the 1950s.

But even in supposed leisure, he is mindful of the time, tapping his watch to remind a reporter that he has a schedule to keep. He still writes a syndicated column, plans another spy novel - featuring his recurring alter ego, the dashing Blackford Oakes - and is currently promoting Miles Gone By, a collection of writings over the past half century that serves as an informal memoir.

"What I have attempted is in the nature of a narrative survey of my life, at work and at play," he writes in the introduction to the book, which covers everything from childhood to sailing to politics to mortality.

Haughty voice, sense of camaraderie

In a gray sports coat, white khakis and matching shoes, the wavy-haired Buckley has an amiable, even casual presence, with his tie askew and shirt unbuttoned at the top. His face is jowled but still handsome. The voice, so familiar to fans of Firing Line, is haughty and composed, but warmed by a certain affection, a sense of play and camaraderie amid the most serious debate.

Left and right spend a great deal of time insulting each other these days, but Buckley's standing as a "civilized" conservative has allowed him to maintain at least cordial relationships with many on the other side. Walter Cronkite contributes an introduction to an audio disk that accompanies Buckley's new book. Other friends, or warm acquaintances, have included economist John Kenneth Galbraith and columnists Murray Kempton and Nat Hentoff, who recalled appearing on Firing Line.

"Of all those kinds of programs, I thought his was one of the best," says Hentoff, a columnist for the liberal Village Voice. "He really invited people he knew would disagree with him, and he was a very sharp and informed interviewer who didn't use shouting instead of argument."

Liberal author and columnist Eric Alterman says of Buckley, "History would be different had he never lived and accomplished what he accomplished, which was to take the conservative movement and open it up to intellectual growth.

"I don't think he's any great shakes as a thinker ... but I respect him," Alterman says. "He's nothing like the current neo-conservatives, fighting a culture war. He's much more open to nuance and to honest disagreement."

Born Nov. 24, 1925, in New York, William Frank Buckley Jr. is the sixth of 10 children of a multimillionaire with oil holdings in seven countries. The precocious young Buckley was only 8 when he wrote to the king of England, demanding payment of the British war debt.

He grew up in the type of household where jaws stiffened at the mention of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and Buckley never rebelled - not even in jest.

'God and Man at Yale' showed promise

Yale University, where he stood noticeably to the right of a liberal campus, was a kind of awakening. The perceived bias of teachers and texts led him to write God and Man at Yale, published in 1951 and a book that both angered Yale officials and established Buckley as a major voice.

In the 1950s, Roosevelt was dead but the New Deal remained a reigning influence; "intellectual" was almost synonymous with "liberal," from presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to academics such as Galbraith and Lionel Trilling.

Buckley helped change that perception when he founded the National Review, in 1955, declaring that he proposed to stand "athwart history, yelling 'stop' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it." He targeted not just the left, but mainstream Republicans such as President Eisenhower and the far right John Birch Society.

Although it perpetually lost money, National Review built its circulation from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 in 1964, when conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential candidate. Circulation now stands at about 155,000.

"Before Buckley, conservatism had the face of Bob Taft, a distinguished American but not the sort of man who could get the campuses excited," says conservative author and columnist George Will, referring to the dour, conservative Ohio senator.

"Bill could go to the campus with that arch manner of his. And he was exciting and young and conservative. And all of a sudden, conservatism was sexy."

In 1960, Buckley helped found Young Americans for Freedom and, in 1961, was among the founders of the Conservative Party in New York, serving as the party's candidate for mayor of New York in 1965, a race he happily lost.

"If the conservative apogee was Ronald Reagan," Will says, "then you could say that there would have been no Reagan without Barry Goldwater, who helped set the stage for Reagan, and no Goldwater without National Review, which was the organizing house organ for Goldwater, and without Bill Buckley there is no National Review.

Right-wing, but willing to listen

Buckley has never departed from such fundamental conservative beliefs as smaller government and anti-communism, but he has proved willing to break ranks when the evidence so leads him. He supported the 1977-78 treaty that returned the Panama Canal to Panama. He advocates legalizing drugs and opposes the war in Iraq, after originally supporting it.

Asked if the world is a better place than it was 50 years ago, he says not necessarily, his relief at the Eastern bloc's demise shadowed by concern over the prevalence of skepticism and nihilism, what he calls "a philosophical looseness that I think is dangerous."

But his own life has been a happy affair, borne along by wealth and timing and a tireless spirit. And he does liken it to a voyage over the seas, with Buckley still in command even as the hour grows late.

"You are moving at racing speed, parting the buttery sea as with a scalpel, and the waters roar by, themselves exuberantly subdued by your powers to command your way through them," he writes in his memoir's epilogue.




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