A Liberal's Praise for William F. Buckley

It's not easy for a committed liberal to admire an archconservative like William F. Buckley Jr., but perhaps it's easier than you might imagine at first. Sure, it's not hard to find plenty to denounce, reject and object to. Buckley never did retract the support and admiration he expressed for Joe McCarthy's witch hunts in the 1950s. And while he ceased to argue that Africans will be ready to run their own affairs "when they stop eating each other," neither he nor his magazine ever fully repudiated the poisonous role it played in stoking white supremacists' anger against the civil-rights movement.

But rather than rehearse our many ideological differences, I come to NEWSWEEK not to bury Buckley, but, believe it or not, to offer some respect for the man and the editor. More important than any of the particular ideas in which Buckley believed was his belief in the power of ideas themselves. When the audacious, young Yale grad founded National Review in 1955, he hoped to accomplish more than anyone really expected a magazine to be capable of. He sought not only to rejuvenate the conservative movement, but also, simultaneously, to remake it. To do this, he needed not only new writers—he would eventually cultivate the talents of the likes of Garry Wills, Joan Didion, John Leonard and Richard Brookhiser—but also new thoughts.

He needed to transcend the battles of the Birchers, the anti-Semites, isolationists, ex-Trotskyites, and, yes, the irredeemably racist, and forge a modern new identity out of parts of all of them. In between, he would be required to navigate between factions, settle disputes, assuage bruised egos—and somehow scramble to find the funds to ensure that each issue went out on time. (We at America's oldest continuously publishing weekly magazine particularly envied National Review its relatively leisurely biweekly publication schedule.)

Despite his uncompromising conservative beliefs, Buckley reveled in transpartisan friendships, most notably with the late John Kenneth Galbraith. (One of Galbraith's favorite phrases—"Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue"—may well have been coined to describe his skiing partner Buckley.) While he could deploy a sometimes vicious wit—which could descend into cruelty—Buckley disdained the kind of partisan shoutfests that too often pass for political debate on our TVs today.

Amidst all, National Review remained at the center of Buckley's universe because it provided him with the opportunity both to create a community identity and to forge and test the ideas to which that community would dedicate itself. Every subscription list, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has written, is a political organization. They set the standard in society for reasoned argumentation. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, follows on Habermas's reasoning when he observes that "the opinions that these journals propagate and circulate today often turn out to be tomorrow's wisdom. They act as intellectual and political gadflies, they prod their larger and staider colleagues, they question conformity and complacency."

From a collection of disparate elements, National Review ended up at the center of a political movement that captured much of the government and far more of the media than most are willing to admit. Interestingly, in a sign of today's conservative crackup, Buckley grew disillusioned with the direction the movement took. "Denounce the Iraq war and your influence as a conservative will soar," Galbraith advised Buckley. Buckley did just this, writing in July 2004 that if "I had known back then in February 2003 what we know now I would not have counseled war against Iraq." Later, Buckley wrote that if he held a seat in the House of Representatives, he would vote against Bush's proposed troop surge.

Some of his disciples felt betrayed. On a fund-raising cruise sponsored by the magazine, he got into a heated argument with ferocious neoconservative Norman Podhoretz about the wisdom of the Iraqi invasion. The movement had grown so large that it was now one not merely of many magazines (and subscription lists), but also of competing voting blocs and power centers.

The Nation was 90 years old when Buckley began National Review. As a young editor, he made no secret that he hoped his small magazine might be a conservative variation on The Nation. Today, with the circulations of the two magazines roughly equal, we find ourselves in a similar position—taking that principled stand athwart history, yelling "stop." In these times of unprecedented media consolidation, I believe, as Buckley did, that small magazines of ideas and opinion continue to have an outsized influence on our political discourse—nurturing not-ready-for-prime-time ideas, thrusting new issues onto the national agenda and nourishing young writers.

Buckley did all of these things, and he left us all, one suspects, in precisely the way he would have chosen: as an editor at his desk. It was an exit a liberal counterpart cannot help but admire and—let's admit it—envy.