Michael Gerson on William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley Jr. made himself difficult for others to eulogize by writing finer eulogies than any living soul. There were elegant tributes to Eisenhower and Reagan and Goldwater, capturing whole lives in a few quick, sure strokes. But the column that I remember most vividly was on Buckley's mother. "Five days before she died," he explained, "one week having gone by without her having said anything … the nurse brought her from the bathroom to the armchair and—inflexible rule—put on her lipstick, and the touch of rouge, and the pearls. Suddenly, and for the first time since the terminal descent began a fortnight earlier, she reached out for her mirror. With effort she raised it in front of her face, and then said, a teasing smile on her face as she turned to the nurse, 'Isn't it amazing that anyone so old can be so beautiful?' " Her son concluded: "The answer, clearly, was, Yes, it was amazing that anyone could be so beautiful."

Words such as these were enough to inspire generations of young writers (including me) to failed emulation. But they also reveal something about their author. Buckley's writing always served his deepest loves—his large and exceptional family, his Roman Catholic faith, his blessed and wayward country. Buckley was playful, but not cynical. He was a political showman who knew that politics is more than a carnival. He was a controversialist with larger goals than his own renown.

Buckley loved conservatism enough to transform it utterly. Along with his brilliant co-conspirators at National Review, he conducted a series of cheerful purges: banishing John Birchers who cried conspiracy, followers of Ayn Rand who believed that altruism is a crime and anti-Semites who had warped and discredited the right for decades. Buckley's achievement in the realm of ideas can be stated simply: he made it possible to be a conservative without being a crackpot. He did more than smooth conservatism's rough edges; he exorcized its tortured soul.

In the process, Buckley came to symbolize the tensions within conservatism. He balanced a wide streak of libertarianism with a vigorous Catholic traditionalism—endorsing both marijuana legalization and the Latin mass. Buckley did not regard this struggle between freedom and order as a problem to be solved but as a fact, a given deep down in the nature of things. Conservatism, after all, is not an ideology demanding rational harmonization. It is a way of life we inherit and appreciate and defend. From his example, young conservatives learned that traditionalism could subversively drive their liberal elders to tears and rage. We also learned that language, in the proper hands, could be employed with the precision and effect of an epee. During one episode of "Firing Line," Buckley used the word "irenic," provoking his seething guest to demand why he didn't just say "peaceful." Buckley answered: "I desired that extra syllable." Buckley was, well, cool—cool like a spy (which he once was), cool like a rebel (early on, McGeorge Bundy denounced him as "a twisted and ignorant young man"), cool like David Niven (one of his close friends). And this was another achievement: he made it possible to be a conservative without being a rube.

There are lessons for modern conservatives in this exceptional life. Buckley was not always an optimist—his conservatism included a tragic sense of life's limits—but he was always cheerful. A dour conservatism cannot persuade or inspire. When Buckley raised the possibility of founding a magazine with his most dour friend, Whittaker Chambers objected that since the West was doomed, attempts to save it were also doomed. Buckley replied that, even so, America needed a journal to argue why "we ought to have survived."

Buckley could be a rhetorical street fighter—he once threatened on national television to punch Gore Vidal for calling him a "crypto-Nazi"—but for the most part he exemplified the civility and manners that aristocracy can contribute to democracy. Rivals such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were generally friendly rivals. A civil conservatism is also more persuasive than an angry one.

Buckley knew that politics, above all, is the realm of ideas, not merely tactics and power. For conservatives, those ideas do not change with time and circumstance. The goal of freedom, he said, is to "live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth."

These are all important lessons—but lessons do not substitute for the man. With Buckley's passing—as with the passing of Reagan—conservatism has one less grand, unifying figure. One less leader regarded with respect and affection by every element of a sprawling coalition, from libertarians to religious conservatives. Buckley united the movement because he embodied it, and he embodied it because he largely created it. Conservatism will survive Buckley's passing, as an edifice survives the death of its architect. But few remain who understand how the building was built.

Excessive mourning is inappropriate when a good man dies full of years and honors. But the loss to conservatism and to America is real. The departure of William F. Buckley Jr. leaves an unfilled spot where wit and joy once stood.