The note was unexpected, brief and witty. A few years ago, in The New York Times Book Review, I wrote about a book of William F. Buckley Jr.'s (one of his 50), a "literary autobiography" titled "Miles Gone By." I had found the book charming, and said so. From its pages emerged a portrait of a cheerful cultural and political warrior, a man who loved the clash of ideas, the hurly-burly of the arena—as well as wine, sailing, the Latin mass, John Kenneth Galbraith, Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan.
A few days after the piece was published, a National Review envelope arrived in the mail at home. It was a letter from Buckley, whom I did not know. He thanked me for the review, and added that he would endeavor to do nothing in his dotage to embarrass me.
He kept his word. His death last week at age 82—he was found at his desk at his country house in Sharon, Conn.—marked the passing of an influential public intellectual and further depressed an already melancholy American right. Conservatism in 2008 is as disparate and adrift as it was more than half a century ago, when the young Buckley helped move the right beyond isolationists and anti-Semites to build the coalition of fiscal, foreign-policy and cultural conservatives that elected Reagan president in 1980.
As Evan Thomas writes in our cover, Buckley led a grand and consequential life. An aristocrat, he was not a snob; an archconservative, he was not harsh; a devoted ideologue, he respected the other side. Buckley is on the cover this week, however, not to be lionized—he was tragically wrong about race in the civil-rights era—but to be assessed as both a shaper and a symbol of one of the two most important political movements in modern America (postwar conservatism is one; New Deal liberalism the other).
To understand Buckley is to understand the rise of the right, and some of the reasons for its recent fall. "Several generations of conservatives grew up (in more than one sense) with Bill Buckley," The Wall Street Journal said. "Now they have—well, there is no one like him." The New York Times's David Brooks, who worked for Buckley, told us: "He changed the personality of conservatism. It had been sort of negative, and he made it smart and sophisticated and pushed out all these oddballs and created a movement." Of late, however, Brooks added, the right has "lost something."
Evan adds: "In the conservatism spawned by talk radio and TV, the haters and know-nothings are back, ranting about immigrants and liberals."
Buckley came to oppose the Iraq War. That the man who articulated the most ferocious case for an unrelenting struggle against communism decided, along with many other conservatives, that the government, even a Republican one, was unwisely overreaching in Iraq is one of the signs of the conservative crackup now underway. In an essay, Michael Gerson mines Buckley's life for lessons that may help the right going forward, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, looks at Buckley from the world of the left, and of the band of small but hardy political magazines that defy financial gravity in order to keep the faith of their founders, whether of the left or of the right.
The last book Buckley finished—a memoir of Barry Goldwater—will be published this spring. "It was a grand time we had," Buckley wrote of 1964, "providing all that political experiences could yield, joys and sorrows, excitement and depression." The same could be said of the whole of Buckley's life. The book's title? "Flying High." Buckley always was. Requiescat in pace.