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William F. Buckley 1925-2008

Country : New York City, New York
Profession : Writer
Date of birth : 1925-11-24
Date of death : 2008-02-27
Cause of Death : Emphysema

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William Frank Buckley Jr. (November 24, 1925 – February 27, 2008) was an American libertarian conservative author and commentator. He founded the political magazine National Review in 1955, hosted 1429 episodes of the television show Firing Line from 1966 until 1999, and was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist. His writing style was famed for its erudition, wit, and use of uncommon words.

Buckley was "arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century", according to George H. Nash, a historian of the modern American conservative movement. "For an entire generation he was the preeminent voice of American conservatism and its first great ecumenical figure." Buckley's primary intellectual achievement was to fuse traditional American political conservatism with laissez-faire and anti-communism, laying the groundwork for the modern American conservatism of U.S. presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and President Ronald Reagan.

Buckley came on the public scene with his book God and Man at Yale (1951); among over fifty further books on writing, speaking, history, politics and sailing, were a series of novels featuring CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Buckley referred to himself as either libertarian or conservative. He resided in New York City and Stamford, Connecticut. He was a practicing Catholic, regularly attending the traditional Latin Mass in Connecticut.

Early life

Buckley was born in New York City to lawyer and oil baron William Frank Buckley, Sr., of English and Irish descent, and Aloise Josephine Antonia Steiner, a native of New Orleans and of Swiss-German descent. The sixth of ten children, as a boy Buckley moved with his family from Mexico to Sharon, Connecticut before beginning his first formal schooling in Paris, where he attended first grade. By age seven, he received his first formal training in English at a day school in London; his first and second languages were Spanish and French, respectively. As a boy, Buckley developed a love for music, sailing, horses, hunting, skiing, and story-telling. All of these interests would be reflected in his later writings. Just before World War II, at age 13, he attended high school at the Catholic Beaumont College in England. During the war, his family took in the future British historian Alistair Horne as a child war evacuee. Buckley and Horne remained life-long friends. Buckley and Horne both attended the Millbrook School, in Millbrook, New York, and graduated as members of the Class of 1943. At Millbrook, Buckley founded and edited the school's yearbook, The Tamarack, his first experience in publishing. When Buckley was a young man, his father was an acquaintance of libertarian author Albert Jay Nock. William F. Buckley, Sr., encouraged his son to read Nock's works.

In his younger years, Buckley developed many musical talents; he played the harpsichord very well — later calling it "the instrument I love beyond all others". He was an accomplished pianist and appeared once on Marian McPartland's National Public Radio show "Piano Jazz". A great fan of Johann Sebastian Bach, Buckley said that he wanted Bach's music played at his funeral.

Marriage and family

In 1950, Buckley married Patricia Aldyen Austin "Pat" Taylor (1926 –2007), daughter of industrialist Austin C. Taylor. He met Pat, a Protestant from Vancouver, British Columbia, while she was a student at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She later became a prominent charity fundraiser for such organizations as the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery at New York University Medical Center and the Hospital for Special Surgery. She also raised money for Vietnam War veterans and AIDS patients. On April 15, 2007, she died of an infection after a long illness at age 80. After her death, Buckley's friend, Christopher Little, said Buckley "seemed dejected and rudderless".

The couple had one son, author Christopher Buckley.

Buckley had nine siblings, including sister Maureen Buckley-O'Reilly, sister Priscilla L. Buckley, author of Living It Up With National Review: A Memoir for which William wrote the foreword; sister Patricia Lee Buckley Bozell, who was Patricia Taylor's roommate at Vassar before each married; brother Fergus Reid Buckley, an author, debate-master, and founder of the Buckley School of Public Speaking; and brother James L. Buckley, a former senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and a former U.S. Senator from New York. William and James appeared together on Firing Line. Buckley co-authored a book, McCarthy and His Enemies, with his brother-in-law attorney L. Brent Bozell Jr. (Patricia's husband).

Education, military service and the CIA

Buckley attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico (or UNAM) in 1943. The following year upon his graduation from the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. In his book, Miles Gone By, he briefly recounts being a member of Franklin Roosevelt's honor guard when the president died.

With the end of World War II in 1945, he enrolled in Yale University, where he became a member of the secret Skull and Bones society was a debater, an active member of the Conservative Party and of the Yale Political Union, and served as Chairman of the Yale Daily News.

Buckley studied political science, history and economics at Yale, graduating with honors in 1950. He excelled as the captain of the Yale Debate Team, and under the tutelage of Yale professor Rollin G. Osterweis, Buckley honed his acerbic style.

In 1951, like some of his classmates in the Ivy League, Buckley was recruited into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); he served for less than a year.

In a November 1, 2005, editorial for National Review, Buckley recounted that:

When in 1951 I was inducted into the CIA as a deep cover agent, the procedures for disguising my affiliation and my work were unsmilingly comprehensive. It was three months before I was formally permitted to inform my wife what the real reason was for going to Mexico City to live. If, a year later, I had been apprehended, dosed with sodium pentothal, and forced to give out the names of everyone I knew in the CIA, I could have come up with exactly one name, that of my immediate boss (E. Howard Hunt, as it happened). In the passage of time one can indulge in idle talk on spook life. In 1980 I found myself seated next to the former president of Mexico at a ski-area restaurant. What, he asked amiably, had I done when I lived in Mexico? "I tried to undermine your regime, Mr. President." He thought this amusing, and that is all that it was, under the aspect of the heavens.

While in Mexico, Buckley edited The Road to Yenan, a book by Peruvian author Eudocio Ravines.


First books

In 1951, the same year he was recruited into the CIA, Buckley's first book, God and Man at Yale, was published. The book was written in Hamden, Connecticut, where William and Pat Buckley had settled as newlyweds. A critique of Yale University, the work argues that the school had strayed from its original educational mission.

In 1954, Buckley co-wrote a book McCarthy and His Enemies with his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell Jr., strongly defending Senator Joseph McCarthy as a patriotic crusader against communism.

National Review, Young Americans for Freedom and Barry Goldwater

Buckley worked as an editor for The American Mercury in 1951 and 1952, but left after spotting anti-Semitic tendencies in the magazine. He then founded National Review in 1955, serving as editor-in-chief until 1990. During that time, National Review became the standard-bearer of American conservatism, promoting the fusion of traditional conservatives and libertarians. Buckley was a defender of McCarthyism. In McCarthy and his Enemies he asserted that " a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks."

According to Buckley, when he first met philosopher Ayn Rand through mutual friends, she greeted him with the following: "You are much too intelligent to believe in God." In 1957, Buckley published Whittaker Chambers's review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, ostensibly "reading her out of the conservative movement". Objectivists have accused Chambers of merely skimming the novel. Buckley said that Rand never forgave him for publishing the review and that "for the rest of her life, she would walk theatrically out of any room I entered!" Defenders of Rand, however, have noted that the review had suggested that Rand's message was totalitarian (for example, "commanding" those she opposes, "To the gas chambers–go!"), despite the novel's consistent defense of what most see as libertarian values, Rand's own flight to America from Soviet dictatorship, and her public opposition to communism at a time when Chambers was still spying for Stalin.

Also in 1957, Buckley came out in support of the segregationist South, famously writing that "the central question that emerges... is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race." Buckley changed his views and by the mid-1960s renounced racism. This change was caused in part because of his reaction to the tactics used by white supremacists against the civil rights movement, and in part because of the influence of friends like Garry Wills, who confronted Buckley on the morality of his politics.

By the late 1960s, Buckley disagreed strenuously with segregationist George Wallace, and Buckley later said it was a mistake for National Review to have opposed the civil rights legislation of 1964-65. He later grew to admire Martin Luther King, Jr. and supported creation of a national holiday for him. As late as 2004, he defended his statement, at least the part referring to African Americans not being "advanced". He pointed out the word "Advancement" in the name NAACP and continued, "The call for the 'advancement' of colored people presupposes they are behind. Which they were, in 1958, by any standards of measurement." During the 1950s, Buckley had worked to remove anti-Semitism from the conservative movement and barred holders of those views from working for National Review.

In 1960, Buckley helped form Young Americans for Freedom and in 1964 he strongly supported the candidacy of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, first for the Republican nomination against New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and then for the Presidency. Buckley used National Review as a forum for mobilizing support for Goldwater.

In 1962, Buckley denounced Robert W. Welch, Jr., and the John Birch Society, in National Review, as "far removed from common sense" and urged the GOP to purge itself of Mr. Welch's influence.

On The Right

Buckley's column On The Right was syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate beginning in 1962. From the early 1970s, his twice-weekly column was distributed to more than 320 newspapers across the country. In the early 1960s, at Sharon, Connecticut, Buckley founded the conservative political youth group, "Young Americans for Freedom" (YAF). Young Americans for Freedom was guided by principles Buckley called, "The Sharon Statement". The successful campaign of his elder brother Jim Buckley's to capture the U. S. Senate seat from New York State held by incumbent Republican Charles Goodell on the Conservative Party ticket in 1970 was due, in large part, to the activist support of the New York State chapter of Y.A.F. A Congressman representing New York's old 43rd Congressional District, Goodell had been appointed to the Senate by Barry Goldwater's arch-nemesis Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican Governor of New York, to fill the seat vacated by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, a Democrat. In the Senate, Goodell had moved to the left and thus incurred the enmity of conservatives in the New York State Republican Party, who threw in their lot with Jim Buckley. Buckley served one term in the Senate, then was defeated by Democract Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976. (Goodell's son Roger is the commissioner of the National Football League.)

Mayoral candidacy

In 1965, Buckley ran for mayor of New York City as the candidate for the young Conservative Party, because of his dissatisfaction with the very liberal Republican candidate and fellow Yale alumnus John Lindsay, who later became a Democrat. When asked what he would do if he won the race, Buckley issued his classic response, "I'd demand a recount." (During one televised debate with Lindsay, Buckley declined to use his allotted rebuttal time and instead replied, "I am satisfied to sit back and contemplate my own former eloquence.")

To relieve traffic congestion, Buckley proposed charging cars a fee to enter the central city, and a network of bike lanes. (Mayor Bloomberg has supported such car-toll plans for New York City in the 2000s, but changes were blocked by the New York State legislature.) He also opposed a civilian review board for the New York Police Department, which Lindsay had recently introduced to control police corruption and install community policing. Buckley finished third with 13.4% of the vote, having unintentionally aided Lindsay's election by taking votes from Democratic candidate Abe Beame.

Buckley was not the first member of his family to run for a big-city mayoral position. His cousin Elliot Ross Buckley ran in 1962 as the Republican candidate for mayor of New Orleans but was easily defeated by the Democrat Victor Schiro. Elliot Buckley's New Orleans race was said to have paralleled and foreshadowed Bill Buckley's campaign three years later.

Firing Line

For many Americans, Buckley's erudite style on his weekly PBS show Firing Line (1966–1999) was their primary exposure to him. In it he displayed a scholarly, and humorous conservatism and was known for his facial expressions, gestures and probing questions of his guests.

Throughout his career as a media figure, Buckley had received much criticism, largely from the American left but also from certain factions on the right, such as the John Birch Society, as well as from Objectivists.

Feud with Gore Vidal

Buckley appeared in a series of televised debates with Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic Party convention. In their penultimate debate on August 28 of that year, the two disagreed over the actions of the Chicago police and the protesters at the ongoing Democratic Convention in Chicago. After Buckley responded to Vidal's argument by stating that Vidal's position was "so naive" and saying of the protesters "some people were pro-Nazi", Vidal called Buckley a "Crypto-Nazi", to which Buckley replied, "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I will sock you in your goddamn face, and you will stay plastered."

This feud continued the following year in the pages of Esquire, which commissioned essays from both Buckley and Vidal on the television incident. Buckley's essay "On Experiencing Gore Vidal", was published in the August 1969 issue, and led Vidal to sue for libel. The court threw out Vidal's case. Vidal's September essay in reply, "A Distasteful Encounter with William F. Buckley", was similarly litigated by Buckley. In it Vidal strongly implied that, in 1944, Buckley and unnamed siblings had vandalized a Protestant church in their Sharon, Connecticut, hometown after the pastor's wife had sold a house to a Jewish family. Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire for libel; Vidal counter-claimed for libel against Buckley, citing Buckley's characterization of Vidal's novel Myra Breckenridge as pornography. Both cases were dropped, with Buckley settling for court costs paid by Vidal, while Vidal absorbed his own court costs. Buckley also received an editorial apology in the pages of Esquire as part of the settlement.

The feud was reopened in 2003 when Esquire re-published the original Vidal essay, at which time further legal action resulted in Buckley being compensated both personally and for his legal fees, along with an editorial notice and apology in the pages of Esquire, again.

Nonetheless, Buckley maintained an antipathy towards Vidal's other bête noire, Norman Mailer, calling him "almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unequalled in his co-existence with it".

United Nations delegate

In 1973, Buckley served as a delegate to the United Nations. In 1981, Buckley informed President-elect (and personal friend) Ronald Reagan that he would decline any official position offered to him. Reagan jokingly replied that that was too bad, because he had wanted to make Buckley ambassador to (then Soviet-occupied) Afghanistan. Buckley replied that he was willing to take the job but only if he were to be supplied with "10 divisions of bodyguards".

Spy novelist

In 1975, in an interview in the Paris Review, Buckley recounted being inspired to write a spy novel by Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal: "...If I were to write a book of fiction, I'd like to have a whack at something of that nature." He went on to explain that he was determined to avoid the moral ambiguity of Graham Greene and John le Carré. Buckley wrote the 1976 spy novel Saving the Queen, featuring Blackford Oakes as a rule-bound CIA agent; Buckley based the novel in part on his own CIA experiences. Over the next 30 years, Buckley would write another 10 novels featuring Oakes. New York Times critic Charlie Rubin wrote that the series "at its best, evokes John O'Hara in its precise sense of place amid simmering class hierarchies".

Buckley was particularly concerned about the view that what the CIA and the KGB were doing were morally equivalent. As he wrote in his memoirs, "I said to Johnny Carson that to say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.

Amnesty International

In the late 1960s, Buckley joined the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA. He resigned in January 1978 in protest over the organization's stance against capital punishment as expressed in its Stockholm Declaration of 1977, which he said would lead to the "inevitable sectarianization of the amnesty movement".

Later career

Buckley participated in an ABC live and very heated debate with scientist Carl Sagan, following the airing of The Day After, a 1983 made-for-television movie about the effects of nuclear war. Sagan argued against nuclear proliferation, while Buckley, a staunch anti-communist, promoted the concept of nuclear deterrence. During the debate, Sagan discussed the concept of nuclear winter and made his famous analogy, equating the arms race to "two sworn enemies standing waist-deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five".

In 1988 Buckley was instrumental in the defeat of liberal Republican Senator Lowell Weicker. Buckley organized a committee to campaign against Weicker and endorsed his Democratic opponent, Connecticut Attorney General Joseph Lieberman Lieberman defeated Weicker.

In 1991, Buckley received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George H. W. Bush. Buckley retired as active editor from National Review in 1990 and relinquished his controlling shares of National Review in June 2004 to a pre-selected board of trustees. The following month he published the memoir Miles Gone By. Buckley continued to write his syndicated newspaper column, as well as opinion pieces for National Review magazine and National Review Online. He remained editor-at-large at the magazine and also conducted lectures, granted occasional radio interviews and made guest appearances on national television news programs.

Views on modern-day conservatism

Buckley criticized certain aspects of policy within the modern conservative movement. Of George W. Bush's presidency, he said, "If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign." He said, "Bush is "conservative", but he is not a "Conservative", and that the president was not elected "as a vessel of the conservative faith." (Buckley would distinguish between so-called "lowercase c" and "Capital C" conservatives, the latter being True conservatives: fiscally conservative and socially Conservative/Libertarian or libertarian-leaning). Regarding the War in Iraq, Buckley stated, "The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous." He added: "This isn't to say that the Iraq war is wrong, or that history will judge it to be wrong. But it is absolutely to say that conservatism implies a certain submission to reality; and this war has an unrealistic frank and is being conscripted by events." In a February 2006 column published at National Review Online and distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, Buckley stated unequivocally that, "One cannot doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed." Buckley has also stated that "'s important that we acknowledge in the inner councils of state that it (the war) has failed, so that we should look for opportunities to cope with that failure." According to Jeffrey Hart writing in the American Conservative, Buckley had a "tragic" view of the Iraq war: he "saw it as a disaster and thought that the conservative movement he had created had in effect committed intellectual suicide by failing to maintain critical distance from the Bush administration...At the end of his life, Buckley believed the movement he made had destroyed itself by supporting the war in Iraq."

Regarding the Iraq "surge", however, it is noted by the editors of National Review that: "Buckley initially opposed the surge, but after seeing its early success believed it deserved more time to work."

Over the course of his career, Buckley's views changed on some issues, such as drug legalization, which he came to favor. In his December 3, 2007 column, Buckley advocated banning tobacco use in America.


Buckley died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, on February 27, 2008; he was found dead at his desk in the study. "He died with his boots on", his son said, "after a lifetime of riding pretty tall in the saddle."[15] At the time of his death, he had been suffering from emphysema and diabetes.

In a December 3, 2007 column, Buckley commented on the cause of his emphysema:

Half a year ago my wife died, technically from an infection, but manifestly, at least in part, from a body weakened by 60 years of nonstop smoking. I stayed off the cigarettes but went to the idiocy of cigars inhaled, and suffer now from emphysema, which seems determined to outpace heart disease as a human killer. Stick me in a confessional and ask the question: Sir, if you had the authority, would you forbid smoking in America? You'd get a solemn and contrite, Yes.

Notable members of the Republican political establishment paying tribute to Buckley included President George W. Bush former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Bush said of Buckley, "he influenced a lot of people, including me. He captured the imagination of a lot of people." Gingrich added, "Bill Buckley became the indispensable intellectual advocate from whose energy, intelligence, wit, and enthusiasm the best of modern conservatism drew its inspiration and encouragement... Buckley began what led to Senator Barry Goldwater and his Conscience of a Conservative that led to the seizing of power by the conservatives from the moderate establishment within the Republican Party. From that emerged Ronald Reagan." Reagan's widow, Nancy, commented, "Ronnie valued Bill's counsel throughout his political life, and after Ronnie died, Bill and Pat were there for me in so many ways."

Linguistic expertise

Buckley was well known for his command of language. Buckley came late to formal instruction in the English language, not learning it until he was seven years old (his first language was Spanish, learned in Mexico, and his second French, learned in Paris). As a consequence, he spoke English with an idiosyncratic accent: something between an old-fashioned, upper class Mid-Atlantic accent and British Received Pronunciation.

Buckley's unique linguistic style has been parodied by several actors. Impressionist David Frye included Buckley in his portfolio in the 1960s and 1970s, mastering Buckley's quirky mannerisms, such as his deliberate speech pattern, his use of pen or pencil as a prop, and his tendency to grin and open his eyes wide when making a self-satisfying verbal point. Dustin Hoffman modeled the voice of his character after Buckley's when he played the title role in the Robin Williams feature, Hook. In the Walt Disney feature film Aladdin the Genie, voiced by Robin Williams, morphed into a parodic Buckley when describing the limitations of the three wishes. Joe Flaherty occasionally portrayed Buckley in Second City Television sketches.

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