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Editor Reflects on Buckley’s Conservative Legacy

February 27, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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William F. Buckley, Jr. -- a commentator and author credited with helping found the modern American conservative movement -- died Wednesday at age 82. Paul Gigot, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor, reflects on Buckley's legacy.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, remembering William F. Buckley, Jr. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was editor, columnist, television host, novelist, provocateur and more. But chiefly William F. Buckley, Jr., will be remembered as a key founder of the modern conservative movement in America.

He was born into wealth in New York City in 1925 and attended Yale University, the subject of his 1951 book, “God and Man at Yale,” which first brought him to public attention.

In 1955, he founded National Review, the magazine that would become his chief platform for promoting conservative ideas and thinkers.

In 2004, Buckley talked with the NewsHour’s Terence Smith.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR., founder, National Review: The conservatism that I identified myself with was anticommunist, antisocialist. And the principal lodestone of that was National Review magazine, which I founded and served as editor.

Reagan said that he got his inspiration from National Review, you know, words I love to hear. I hope they survive this broadcast. And Goldwater said the same thing.

So I acknowledge that while never forgetting to give primary credit to the wonderful people who came and wrote for it, you know, your scholars who had been itchy for a place to write when there wasn’t a journal of opinion that was very hospitable to their thought, which was the case 50 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Buckley was also well-known as the host of PBS’s “Firing Line,” which he hosted for 23 years, engaging, prodding, bantering with ideological friends and foes alike.

A lifelong theme for Buckley was his Christianity and the role of religion in personal and public life. In 1997, he talked with David Gergen on the NewsHour about a book he’d written on the subject.

DAVID GERGEN, Former Presidential Adviser: How has your Christian belief influenced your views on conservatism?

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, it’s made me right all the time.

My conservative position is ultimately based on my conviction that the individual is supreme, that you can’t mess with the individual. In this sense, I think Jesse — Martin Luther King said really the same thing.

I quote Martin Luther King in this book. And I cite his evocation of Christianity as the source of his feeling that man should be free and go on to wonder why, where Martin Luther King is celebrated these days, but the Christian faith that inspired him is very widely neglected in the same places.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, there was Buckley the bon vivant, sailor, harpsichordist, and writer of spy novels. He wrote some 50 books in all and had this to say when asked how he did it.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, the thing to do is to write one every year. I retreat to Switzerland every year and I divest myself to the extent possible of other distractions. And then I write 1,500 words a day. And that, oddly enough, adds up to a book.

JEFFREY BROWN: William F. Buckley, Jr., died this morning at his desk while working on a new book about Ronald Reagan. He was 82 years old.

Buckley unified conservatives

JEFFREY BROWN: Among the many journalists and writers nurtured by William F. Buckley was Paul Gigot, who worked at the National Review after college. Today, he's the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal and, of course, well-known to longtime NewsHour viewers for his years as part of our Friday politics wrap.

Well, Paul, welcome. And how would you describe Buckley's influence on the conservative movement?

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, he was what he described as the fusionist. Back in the '50s, there were disparate conservative factions. There were the traditionalists, social conservatives, cultural conservatives; there were the free market libertarians; and then there were the anticommunists, the national security conservatives.

They didn't often get along. Sometimes they didn't even talk to one other. And they certainly didn't have a magazine, a common intellectual outlet.

And what Buckley did was he kind of brought all of those people together. He showed them that they had common interests. They had intellectually things in common. And he let them spar and fight in the magazine, but he also over time showed that they could come together.

And I think that, those three stools, with Buckley's gift for coalition building, became the basis for the modern conservative movement and ultimately for Ronald Reagan's campaign for president.

JEFFREY BROWN: The editorial in the first magazine has some famous words where he says that the magazine, quote, "stands athwart history yelling 'stop.'" And that's one, two, three, five words in which you see the ambition, the aggressiveness, and that word "athwart," which shows how unafraid he was to use big words.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, at that time, remember, Lionel Trilling, the great liberal critic, could say with some accuracy that there really were no general conservative ideas in circulation in America. He said there was no conservative movement in America.

And that's what Buckley was standing athwart. And he, with so many other writers that he nurtured, really did help to create that movement and made conservatism respectable.

He did it in another way, which was to really police the conservative movement. There were a lot of elements of it that were bigoted. The old isolationists from the pre-war era still existed in the '50s, and some of them were anti-Semitic.

Buckley purged the conservative movement of those kinds of elements, which was crucial to making it respectable and mainstream enough where it could begin to gather a larger following and ultimately a very popular and mainstream following.

An intellectual who enjoyed debate

JEFFREY BROWN: I know some of this was, of course, personal for you. Tell us about what you found when you went to work for him. What was he like?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, he was utterly charming. He was witty, sophisticated, urbane. He was not a populist in the sense that a lot of editors are.

I remember one of my tasks when I first got out of school working for him was to answer some of his mail. And I once got a note -- and this is when Henry Aaron was on his home run streak, record home run hitting streak -- and I got a note saying, "Who is Henry Aaron?"

But he had so many interests, and he would bring you into that circle. I remember being invited to his home for dinner with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then ambassador to the United Nations, ultimately senator, Allard Lowenstein, the anti-war activist.

He had friends who were on the right; he had friends on the left. James Burnham, the great Cold War writer, anticommunist, and they were all mixed together.

And he threw a 22-year-old kid -- and he did this for years, not just to me, but for many people -- threw them right into that ferment and forced you to think for yourself, think on your feet, talk and write. And it was a wonderful experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you mention friends on the left. He had, of course, ideological battles all the time, very publicly. It's kind of fun to go back and look at some of the quotes. We don't have time for me to raise all of them, but he seemed to thrive on that role of the public intellectual, right?

PAUL GIGOT: He did, I think along with Milton Friedman. He and Milton Friedman were the two great popularizers in the second half of the 20th century of intellectual conservatism through their popular writings, Friedman through his newspaper column, Buckley through his magazine, the TV show, and his column.

And Buckley embodied, in a way, with his charm and his knowledge, he used all of the big words. He seemed smart. He looked to a young conservative like conservatism was cool. It was respectable.

It was on the cutting edge. And you could see -- and you really identified, particularly if you were a young conservative, as I was at the time. Well, I really wasn't a conservative. I was a young person looking for what I really believed in. And he had that attraction.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean that arched eyebrow and the almost theatrical effect that many of us remember from "Firing Line," that drew you in?

PAUL GIGOT: And the great put-down. And then the great put-down. You know, he once said -- he ran for mayor in the '60s, and I think he got 12 percent of the vote. And he was once asked what he would do if he were elected. He said, "Demand a recount."

JEFFREY BROWN: We just have a minute, Paul, but I just want to ask you, because we should also note that he -- sometimes he took positions that were counter to many other conservatives. And he had the long-time talk about decriminalizing marijuana and, in more recent years, he wrote about Iraq as a defeat, actually.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think he did. Of course, he did that before the surge. But, no, he was a man who thought for himself. I don't think that he was somebody who believed in all doctrines for all times and didn't change -- didn't think that conservatism could -- conservatism's verities didn't need to adapt to new realities. They did need to adapt.

And I think that was what Buckley in his later years was saying. He thought that intellectual conservatism maybe had gotten a little too lazy, a little comfortable with power, as conservative ideas were brought into the public, in government. And I think he wanted a little more -- the return of that energy and debate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Paul Gigot on the life of William F. Buckley, Jr. Thanks very much.