June 29, 2004


National Review Founder Says It's Time to Leave Stage (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, 6/29/04, NY Times)

In 1954, when Ronald Reagan was still a registered Democrat and host of "General Electric Theater," the 28-year-old William Frank Buckley Jr. decided to start a magazine as a standard-bearer for the fledgling conservative movement. In the 50-year ascent of the American right since then, his publication, National Review, has been its most influential journal and Mr. Buckley has been the magazine's guiding spirit and, until today, controlling shareholder.

Tonight, however, Mr. Buckley, 78, is giving up control. In an interview, he said he planned to relinquish his shares today to a board of trustees he had selected. Among them are his son, the humorist Christopher Buckley; the magazine's president, Thomas L. Rhodes; and Austin Bramwell, a 2000 graduate of Yale and one of the magazine's youngest current contributors.

Mr. Buckley's "divestiture," as he calls it, represents the exit of one of the forefathers of modern conservatism. It is also the latest step in the gradual quieting of one of the most distinctive voices in the business of cultural and political commentary, the writer and editor who founded his magazine on a promise to stand "athwart history, yelling 'Stop,' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it." [...]

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, called Mr. Buckley's sometimes baroque style "genially ridiculous."

Mr. Wieseltier added: "It is a kind of antimodern pretense, but of course he is in fact a completely modern man. His thinking and his writing have all the disadvantages of a happy man. The troubling thing about Bill Buckley's work is how singularly untroubled it is by things."

But Mr. Buckley's voice has always been singular. He was not much older than Mr. Bramwell when he founded National Review. The son of an oilman, Mr. Buckley was already famous for his first book, "God and Man at Yale" (1951). Conservatism in the United States was close to its 20th-century nadir, marked by Dwight D. Eisenhower's defeat of the conservative Robert Taft for the 1952 Republican nomination. [...]

[H]e professed more than a little pride at the country's rightward drift during his years in control of National Review. "We thought to influence conservative thought, which we succeeded in doing," he said.

It's difficult to think of anyone who had a greater influence on the course of the second half of the 20th Century than Mr. Buckley, and Mr. Wieseltier has--quite unintentionally--put his finger on one of the key reasons why: Mr. Buckley made conservatism not just respectable but fun. Conservatism, which proceeds from the correct understanding of Man's nature as revealed in the Fall, can be rather a dark business. It is also, however, the source of all comedy. Liberals like Mr. Wieseltier--with their mistaken belief that men are basically good and that the world is therefore perfectable--are necessarily "troubled" by its rather parlous state. To be untroubled, even happy, as Mr. Buckley unquestionably was, despite the myriad causes for unhappiness all around us, must be monstrous in the eyes of the Left. One corollary of the great truth that to a liberal life is a tragedy but to a conservative a comedy is that conservatives find liberals amusing while liberals find conservatives appalling. Indeed, Mr. Buckley will get a good chuckle from Mr. Wieseltier's quote, get the last laugh, so to speak.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 29, 2004 12:00 AM

"The men signed of the Cross of Christ go gaily in the dark." -- G. K. Chesterton.

Posted by: Paul Cella at June 29, 2004 10:30 AM

I remember reading his books for the first time in the early seventies (Nat. Review was unobtainable up here)and being blown away with both excitement and merriment. Unfortunately I also remember how impossible it was to get anyone I knew to actually read him before disimissing him outright.

Posted by: Peter B at June 29, 2004 1:05 PM

Darkness always fears the light.

I have seen Buckley 'charm' an audience of upper-middle class college students (generally with mush for brains), and leave them wondering what happened. No professors deigned to attend, of course.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 29, 2004 1:58 PM