Bill Buckley: Mr. Right, RIP

The Buckley dinner salons were held at Bill and Patricia's Park Avenue apartment, a ground-floor maisonette at 73rd Street in Manhattan. Literary sportsman George Plimpton might be there, chatting with statesman Henry Kissinger or novelist Dominick Dunne. At the same time, standing in the corner might be a lumpy, Trotskyite-turned-Catholic intellectual talking to a nervous Yale undergraduate. There were rarely politicians to be seen at the Buckleys' elegant home, but, standing by the Bösendorfer piano in the living room, guests often heard worldclass pianist Bruce Levingston playing the same Bach concerto he would be performing the next week at Carnegie Hall. (Buckley had heard Levingston play Bach as a 23-year old prodigy and asked him to come sailing; the two men became lifelong poker buddies. "He never, never folded," Levingston recalls.)

The dining room was grand, two tables for 10 set with silver flatware and fine china, with the Buckleys' Cavalier King Charles spaniels swirling about. "The first time I had dinner, they put a finger bowl in front of me and I wasn't sure if I should drink it," says David Brooks, now a New York Times columnist, then an editorial assistant at Buckley's National Review. Buckley had offered Brooks a job after Brooks, a University of Chicago student, wrote a funny, if smart-alecky, parody of Buckley's name-dropping memoir, "Overdrive," for the school newspaper. Guests were sometimes daunted: after dinner, Buckley might call on one or two to stand and speak on whatever they felt strongly about. But there was a "charming and childlike side to Buckley," Levingston says. Buckley treated his guests equally, expressing as much interest in the Yale undergrad on his right as in the former secretary of State on his left—or more if the student had something refreshing to say (it didn't hurt if she was pretty, either). Buckley may have been an haut gourmand, but he kept a jar of peanut butter—high-quality peanut butter, to be sure—in his suitcase. "He was a great deal more accepting of difference than many people might have thought," says Levingston. "His tone and level of civilized discourse also set him in great relief to the shrill type of commentary we often hear today. He didn't want to be unduly harsh or unfair, and he felt deeply hurt or disturbed if something he wrote or said hurt someone personally. There was a fundamental kindness about him, which, for all his seemingly intimidating persona, was quite touching."

For more than a half century, William F. Buckley Jr., who died last week at 82, largely inspired and held together the conservative movement that is collapsing today. The Wall Street Journal editorialized: "Several generations of conservatives grew up (in more than one sense) with Bill Buckley. Now they have—well, there is no one like him." "He changed the personality of conservatism," Brooks says. "It had been sort of negative, and he made it smart and sophisticated and pushed out all these oddballs and created a movement." More recently, says Brooks, conservatism has "lost something." In the conservatism spawned by talk radio and TV, the haters and know-nothings are back, ranting about immigrants and liberals. "It was a lot more philosophical under him," he says. At those nightly salons, Buckley liked to talk and argue about ideas and literature and the nature of man; politics was rarely mentioned. "The new conservatives are not as intellectually creative as those dealing with communism and socialism," says Brooks. Buckley tolerated some disreputable ideas, including segregation; but he had the capacity to change.

Buckley was a bon vivant with luxurious tastes, a prolific author of best-selling novels as well as serious nonfiction, a sportsman most gleeful on icy slopes and navigating through a gale, a world-class namedropper, a refined musicologist (and self-taught harpsichord player) and a lover of big words (a sesquipedalian, as he might say). His aristocratic airs were a bit over the top: the parlor-snake languor; the plummy accent; the lank, slightly too-long hair. He played the "Masterpiece Theatre" host of "Brideshead Revisited" to perfection. But he was not a snob. "He was quite the opposite," says his son, Christopher, a well-known satirist and writer. The caricatures of Buckley masked interesting complexities. In the 1955 manifesto for the National Review, his new magazine that would set the course for late-20th-century conservatism, Buckley vowed to "stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop'." But he was by no means a stick-in-the-mud. He was always on the go, looking for new adventures and ideas. In the '60s, he took to driving a motorcycle through the streets of Manhattan and later sailed his yacht into international waters to experiment with marijuana.

Social conservatives tend to be a gloomy lot because they have a dark view of human nature. Every disturbance, they fear, could lead to the French Revolution. But Buckley was as sunny and hopeful as the hero he helped create, Ronald Reagan. He believed that if government would just leave man alone, the human spirit would triumph. Certainly, his did. When he died last week as he was sitting down in his study to write (he was working on a memoir of Reagan), he was one of the world's last great public intellectuals, a man who could spar intensely with the late liberal icons Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith about the true meaning of life—and then have a laugh over a martini.

Buckley owed his success to genius, but just as much to the peculiar nature of his upbringing. He was blessed to grow up in a style and manner that were almost uniquely inside-out, that endowed him at once with critical detachment and a warm faith that he belonged. Buckley's first language was Spanish—from a nanny who worked for the Buckleys while they lived in Mexico for a time. His father was a Texas oil wildcatter who struck it rich and moved his large (10 children) family to Connecticut. They lived on an idyllic estate called Great Elm in the bucolic town of Sharon. But the local WASP gentry looked down on them, at first, as Roman Catholic parvenus—"one step up from mackerelsnappers," says Chris Buckley, invoking an old anti-Catholic slur. Cosseted by nannies and tutors, with his siblings as playmates, Bill grew up in isolated splendor, "as if in a Catholic duchy of Liechtenstein," says the younger Buckley. He was, as a child and all through his life, "deeply, profoundly and sometimes exasperatingly Catholic," says his son. Buckley was, as well, a precocious patriot. At the age of 8, he wrote a stern letter to the King of England, demanding that Britain pay off its World War I debt to the United States.

A stint in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II taught him to get along with other young Americans (who were, at first, put off by his arch mannerisms). Entering Yale in 1946, he became the ultimate Big Man on Campus: champion debater at the Yale Political Union, editor of the Yale Daily News, member of the most exclusive senior society, Skull and Bones. Yet nervous deans tried to tone down his Alumni Day speech because it attacked Yale as a bastion of secularism and collectivism. Buckley refused and was removed as speaker. Instead, he turned his speech into the book that made his young name: "God and Man at Yale."

The WASP establishment came down hard on young Buckley's apostasy. In The Atlantic Monthly, then the red-hot center of Brahmin orthodoxy, the ultimate pure-blood, McGeorge Bundy (later dean at Harvard and JFK's national-security adviser), wrote that "God and Man at Yale" was "dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author." Buckley's answer? In 1955, he started a magazine to make his arguments every other week. In the National Review's first issue, Buckley cheekily proclaimed: "For we offer, besides ourselves, a position that has not grown old under the weight of gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D.s in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town."

Actually, it made the National Review a cold and lonely holdout against the Zeitgeist of the mid-1950s. With the triumph of the New Deal and liberal internationalism, conservatism had become a fringe calling, certainly among the educated classes. Cloth-coat moderates dominated the Republican Party. Lionel Trilling, a Columbia professor who was at the true center of liberal intellectual hegemony, could smugly but rightly proclaim that there were "no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation."

Buckley set about, in his insouciant way, to make conservatism fun and a little glamorous. He began having dinner parties with an odd lot of thinkers, radicals and Beautiful People. "He was kind of the Tina Brown of his day," says his son, Chris. "He had this dinner table and they all came to eat at it." (Patricia, a charming socialite, set a lively and brimming table; the younger Buckley likened his parents to the "Nick and Nora of conservatism.") An early contributor to the National Review was Clare Boothe Luce, playwright and soignée wife of the editor in chief of Time Inc., Henry Luce. "There were some who talked about her in a disparaging way, like, 'Why are you slumming?' " recounts Chris. His father, he recalls, answered for Mrs. Luce—in French: Tous les beaux esprits se rencontrent ("All the beautiful spirits find themselves"). There were some moody and slovenly spirits around the table, like Whittaker Chambers, the former communist who was vilified for causing the perjury conviction of liberal darling (and Soviet spy) Alger Hiss. Chambers was depressed by the mid-1950s. Buckley's editors were notoriously fractious and unruly; Buckley benignly encouraged and tolerated debate, with help from his sister Priscilla, who was managing editor and "a kind of den mother to all these high maintenance personalities," says Chris. But Buckley senior also did some judicious weeding. In his old age, he told his son, "I spent my entire life separating the right wing from the kooks." Though it cost him contributors and readers, he banned conspiratorial members of the John Birch Society from the pages of National Review along with the anti-Semites who had stained the far right. Buckley was, however, hardly a saint. In the mid-'50s, he defended Sen. Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist demagogue. During the war against Jim Crow, he supported Southerners protesting federal integration laws. His idea of a compromise was to deny both uneducated whites and blacks the vote.

The National Review offered common ground for heretofore politically isolated conservatives: anti-communists, churchmen, anti Big Government tax cutters. Buckley gave them a simple but sacred cause around which to rally: individual freedom. "I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level," Buckley had written in "God and Man at Yale." (The words were actually borrowed from Buckley's Yale mentor, a professor named Willmoore Kendall, who edited the manuscript.) Some of the smarter young liberals also began to take notice of Buckley. Charles Peters, later founder of the neo-liberal Washington Monthly, read "God and Man at Yale" and thought, "He's on to something," Peters tells NEWSWEEK. "It called to everyone's attention that liberals had become automatically anti-religion, snobbish people. And that seemed enormously stupid to me at the time." In the 1950s, says Peters, "intellectual snobbery had crept into liberalism." Conservatives "had been treated as Neanderthals [by liberals]," but along came Buckley, "and suddenly they have a guy who sounded elegant. They couldn't be dismissed anymore as cavemen."

Buckley's brand of conservatism, at once fresh and deeply rooted, pushed aside blandly moderate, Main Street Republicanism and won the GOP nomination for Barry Goldwater in 1964. The prevailing liberal ethos embodied by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson still buried Goldwater, but National Review was now setting the agenda for the Republican Party. In California, a charter subscriber was a former actor turned politician named Ronald Reagan, elected governor in 1966. A recent convert to the Republican Party in heavily Democratic Hollywood, Reagan later joked that he began reading National Review wrapped in brown paper.

Buckley himself had no political ambition. As a joke, the National Review ran a BUCKLEY FOR MAYOR headline at the time of the 1965 New York City mayoral race. Liberal Republican John Lindsay was running against the old Democratic machine, leaving conservatives nowhere to go. When New York's fringey Conservative Party asked Buckley to run for mayor for real, he accepted—as a lark. At his announcement, asked what he would do if he won, Buckley answered, "Demand a recount." (He got 13 percent of the vote.) In 1970, the conservatives asked Buckley to run for the Senate, but the editor passed the baton to his brother James—who actually won New York's junior Senate seat when the majority liberal vote split between the Democrat and the Republican candidates. Jim Buckley served a term until 1977, and was beaten by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan—who, in the small world of the New York intelligentsia, was one of Bill Buckley's closest friends and a regular at the Buckley dinner table on 73rd Street.

Buckley did not distinguish between political persuasions in his friendships. For Buckley, "Politics wasn't the ultimate thing," says Rich Lowry, Buckley's disciple and successor as editor of National Review. "That's why he could have all these friendships across party and ideology, because he never believed that political views defined the essential person. He had a deep belief in the preciousness of individuals." Lowry says that was the root of Buckley's deep anti-communism: "There was no way someone like that could survive five minutes in a communist state. He'd be bored to death, and then he'd be executed because he would deliberately do something provocative."

By the late '60s, Buckley was the grandee of resurgent conservatism. President Richard Nixon made him a delegate to the United Nations. Sitting in the General Assembly, Buckley entertained himself listening to the United States being denounced by Third World countries. "He got a good, fun book out of the experience," says son Chris. Buckley's vindication awaited: the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. "All great Biblical stories begin with Genesis," George Will wrote in National Review in 1980. "And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater, there was the National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and in 1980 the spark became a conflagration." (Will was one of several now celebrated pundits or writers who worked for or contributed to National Review; others include Joan Didion and Garry Wills.) In gratitude, Reagan offered to make Buckley ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Sensing that he would be bored hosting diplomatic receptions in London when he could be entertaining far more interesting guests at his New York maisonette, Buckley politely declined, though he asked dryly to be made ambassador to Kabul instead. At the time, Kabul was under Soviet occupation. In his frequent letters to Reagan, Buckley would write under his signature, "United States Ambassador to Afghanistan."

Buckley was having too much fun to be ambassador to anything. In 1976, he wrote his first of 11 novels about the smooth and daring Blackford Oakes—Yale man, CIA spook and Buckley fantasy. (Buckley would whip novels off while on his annual ski vacation at his chalet in Gstaad.) In the first spy novel, a No. 1 best seller, Oakes beds the Queen of England while saving her from communist evil. Buckley actually knew a little about the CIA, having served as a junior agency case officer for a year in Mexico City after graduating from Yale in 1950. Buckley's CIA boss in Mexico, E. Howard Hunt, was no Blackford Oakes: the bumbling Hunt was later busted as one of the Watergate burglars. Buckley's non-fiction feel for the CIA was realistic. After a coup plot against Indonesian strongman Sukarno failed in 1957, Buckley wrote in the National Review, "The attempted assassination of Sukarno last week had all the earmarks of a CIA operation. Everyone in the room was killed except Sukarno."

Buckley was a great talent scout, but his protégés needed to have a hollow leg and a robust disposition. NEWSWEEK International Editor Fareed Zakaria was a Yale student in 1983 when he invited Buckley to speak to the Yale Political Union. Buckley invited Zakaria and another budding young intellectual, Michael Lind, to spend the day at the Buckley weekend house, a 13-room stucco mansion overlooking Long Island Sound in Stamford, Conn. Arriving at 11 a.m. on a bright May day, the young men were served bullshots (vodka and bouillon). Before lunch there were gin and tonics, and with lunch came red and white wine, followed by … a brisk swim! Buckley led the young men to a chilly-looking swimming pool, where he disrobed and plunged in. The young men looked at each other—was this some sort of Greek or late-Victorian ritual?—and stripped off their clothes and jumped in, too. All the men vigorously splashed about for a bit and it was … time for a sail! As the paid hands rigged Buckley's yacht and loaded aboard the steaks, there were more gin and tonics, more wine. Somehow, the yachting party staggered back in time to catch the evening news, followed by … more drinks, laughs and high-minded debate.

Lucky guests got to spend the night on the Buckley yacht. Lowry recalls a memorable, if uncomfortable, Friday-night sailing trip. After dinner there were drinks and hands of poker. Meanwhile, the anchor was slipping and the boat was drifting to shore. No one noticed, Lowry recalled, until the boat was aground. The tide went out … and the yachting party called it a day. "We slept all night on the boat, at a 45degree angle," Lowry says. Buckley didn't seem particularly bothered. His reaction, says Lowry, was a mixture of "vexation and amusement."

Buckley was actually a superb seaman. He sailed his yacht, Cyrano, on long ocean voyages, accompanied by his son, Chris, and various friends, salts and landlubbers alike. "Any father you can travel across the Atlantic with twice and the Pacific once is someone you love," says Chris. The senior Buckley taught himself celestial navigation so thoroughly that he was able to write a treatise on it. Chris Buckley recalls a drunken celebration in New Guinea after the long (4,287 miles) passage from Honolulu. Chris raised a glass to his father, "who can shoot the sun, shoot the stars, and shoot the moon."

Buckley also played the harpsichord, though not well enough to suit his refined musical tastes. Buckley was hardly a dilettante; "He worked his ass off," says Chris. But he was in perpetual motion, giving 70 speeches a year, and it's difficult to tell where the work ended and the fun began. Consider the trips Buckley took to Mississippi in the late '60s and early '70s to visit his friend Clarke Reed. In a sense, the trips were serious business. A brilliant businessman and political operator, Reed was for all intents and purposes the father of the Republican Party in Mississippi, the essential man in building the GOP from minority to majority party in deep Dixie. On one trip, Reed took Buckley to see the writer Walker Percy. While they were sitting on a terrace on the Louisiana bayou, a call came to Buckley from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Paris, letting his friend know that he had just signed a peace accord with the North Vietnamese. "Peace in our time," Buckley announced. On an earlier Buckley foray to Greenville, Miss., the Reeds asked a neighbor, a cotton farmer originally from Britain, to come over and bring his xylophone.

"Everyone was a little intimidated because Buckley was at the height of his fame," recalls Julia Reed, a Vogue writer and NEWSWEEK contributing editor who was 8 or 9 years old at the time. "But he was so warm and gracious to everyone. When it was time for me to go to bed, I remember I couldn't get to sleep because Buckley was playing the piano and singing what I thought was the Frito Bandito song—you know, Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi, the"CielitoLindo"—and someone's daughter was dancing on the table, and the British neighbor was playing his xylophone. Buckley was singing in Spanish, which was his first language, at the top of his voice. He could mingle anywhere."

Buckley was perhaps too frenetic. A 1988 Washington Monthly piece by Nicholas Lemann, now dean of Columbia Journalism School, noted that Buckley "could be a great thinker, but he's too busy running to the airport." Buckley bragged that he could write a column in 20 minutes, and many of his thrice-weekly columns read like it. But his total volume of work is staggering: his columns, The New York Times estimated, would fill 45 volumes, and his papers, donated to Yale, weigh seven tons. He wrote about 50 books (the number varies, depending on whether you count anthologies), and his TV show, "Firing Line," ran for 33 years.

"Firing Line" was a perfect vehicle for Buckley. With a worthy foe, like Germaine Greer on feminism, or race relations with James Baldwin, Buckley was all wicked cleverness. Seeing an opening, his heavy-lidded eyes would flash and his slightly reptilian tongue would dart. "He has the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat," wrote David Remnick, now The New Yorker editor, in The Washington Post in 1985. Buckley loved to skewer with outlandish metaphors. A large target like Harvard was almost too easy. During the late '60s, when the Harvard campus was roiling, Buckley joked that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty.

Buckley bridled at bullies. One of the rare times he lost his temper was debating Gore Vidal, who "got under his skin," says son Chris. When Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," Buckley responded: "Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddam face and you'll stay plastered." But usually his public manners were genteel. With "Firing Line" guests who seemed nervous or over their heads, Buckley was gentle. Behind the scenes, he could show remarkable kindness. In 1980, a rising conservative star, Congressman Bob Bauman, was soliciting a 16-year-old for oral sex. Bauman had been a gay-basher, and he instantly became a pariah. The next day, knowing what lay ahead for the disgraced congressman, Buckley quietly gave him an envelope containing $10,000. "He was a knightly man," says Chris.

Buckley was saddened when the conservative movement began to flounder over the last couple of years. Conservatives, he said, using a favorite word, "have become slothful." In a 2006 interview with CBS, he called the Iraq War a failure. Were there a parliamentary system in the United States, he said, the prime minister would have been forced to retire or resign. The modern-day conservative establishment is reverential about Buckley. Last week, radio talk-show king Rush Limbaugh ranked Buckley as a "founding father." He went on and on about how Buckley had inspired him to "read, write, speak the English language as best I could, to expand my vocabulary." Limbaugh said that when his father asked him how he planned to make a living, Limbaugh replied: "Well, I want to be like Bill Buckley. I want to be able to sit around and write and think and speak." After Limbaugh became a talk-radio icon, Buckley invited him to dinner at his house on 73rd Street. Limbaugh recounted that he was "shaking on the phone at this invitation … In my mind, it was like being summoned as close to God on Earth as you can get." Buckley, typically, was gracious with Limbaugh. The Buckleys were "fans," Limbaugh recounted. Limbaugh added Buckley would "chide" him with "a little note," when he "thought we were incorrect or whatever."

Buckley was much too polite to do more than chide. But one wonders what he really thought of the braying of the talk-show conservatives, the vitriol of Ann Coulter or the immigrant-bashing of Lou Dobbs. Limbaugh says he would ask Buckley, " 'What do you think is the right way to handle a situation like this?' and he would tell me. It was like having another father." But what would Buckley have made of this headline on the Rush Limbaugh Web site: "Rush nukes the liberal notion that modern-day conservatives lack William Buckley's 'civility'"? Way to nuke 'em, Rush?

As he entered his 80th year, Buckley began to slow down. Every three weeks, he would take the train to Boston, to sit with his old liberal friend and fellow charming egoist, John Kenneth Galbraith, who was slowly wasting away and died in April 2006. Buckley himself suffered from emphysema and diabetes, and was not happy when the doctors told him to stop drinking and smoking. Last April, he was stricken by the death of his beloved Pat. The dinner parties ended; Buckley rarely appeared in public. But he was "not morose," says Chris. "To the end, he had a spring in his step." At times, when the younger Buckley seemed gloomy, his father told him, "Remember, despair is a mortal sin." Buckley prayed every day, "and in that sense," says Clarke Reed, "he was always ready."

A few days before Buckley died, Bruce Levingston, the concert pianist who had so often played in the Buckleys' living room, called his friend: Levingston had planned a "musical evening" for Buckley. Levingston was getting ready to play Carnegie Hall, and he wanted to try out a program, a piece by Scarlatti, a Baroque composer who also wrote for the harpsichord, at Buckley's home. "That will be splendid, assuming I'm alive!" said Buckley, with a laugh. He lives on.

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