When I heard that William F. Buckley Jr. had departed, I thought of this oft-quoted epigram from the Talmud: “The righteous need no monuments, their words provide their memories.” Beneath that burnished truism lies an unexamined premise; namely, that one can hardly lay claim to righteousness without leaving words to edify the public, words to treasure. Mister Buckley clearly bequeathed a rich legacy of words and his memory shall not lack for laurels, for garlands or for wreaths.
Like so many others, my political consciousness was firmed up under his tutelage. I began with his columns in the New York Daily News, then I read a number of his books. Whether he was winning me over, or confirming my own intuition, is worth pondering, but the outcome was undeniable: his camp was my camp.
Buckley was many things, some of which have died with him, but the modern conservative movement, much enhanced by his ministrations, will continue to edge its way forward, if a trifle attenuated by his absence. It has been argued, sometimes by Reagan himself, that Reagan could not have become President sans Buckley, but those larger causes and effects juggle too many variables to allow for definitive assertion. This much is indisputable: that the movement that Reagan led by mood, by a nod and a wink and a grin, by a gibe and a vibe and a shrug, Buckley and his protégés ensouled with words.
Yet, if one spark of inspiration must be gleaned from his fiery cascade of ideas, I would choose this very simple idea. The idea of naming the movement “conservatism”.
Even if conservative and movement are not deemed oxymoronic in their partnership, the title would have been absurd anyway, based on its formative context. Buckley’s very first book, God and Man at Yale, was published in 1952, and it is already quite clear that liberal political thought was the regnant orthodoxy of the public square, academia most of all. He demonstrates in that work the systematized, if not quite systematic, effort by faculty to stamp out religious consciousness from the impressionable mind of the Yale undergraduate.
The movement Buckley was encouraging was the furthest thing from conservative, if that adjective is construed as preservative of a status quo. Four decades before that time, Woodrow Wilson had declared the Constitution outmoded and irrelevant, and no one thought it worth a reference except as a fig leaf to cover the prurient. Franklin Roosevelt had certainly paid it no mind in fashioning a vision of modern governance. Buckley and friends were proposing a notion that was not so much conservative as restorative, irredentist if you will, revanchist if you must.
The genius inhered in the realization that the general conservative impulse of the Middle American family man, the kind that winced at sexualization of the culture, that grimaced at the glorification of violence, could be harnessed to support this Constitutionalist drive. The person who feels that the best parts of his sensibility are the ones that are least incendiary can be shown that it is the last residue of the wisdom of our Founders that is animating his better angels.
He used all the arguments for the Constitution that clergymen use for the Bible – and that the Bible uses for itself. It is the right thing to do, it actually works better, you owe it to previous generations, you owe it to future generations. He did a tight-rope walk between the argument that enlightened self-interest produces virtue and the argument that the citizen’s spirit of altruistic philanthropy is what entitles him to be the arbiter of his own compassion. He was by turns trenchant and piquant, cerebral and playful, but he never demanded obeisance by entitlement. He forbore to work for every logical point he scored.
What the future holds for this set of ideas seems to be in abeyance, by most accounts. This is at least partially because past victories have dulled the urgency of the revolution. Stop any Democrat at random and mention ninety percent tax rates under Roosevelt, and he will be completely shocked and astounded.
There was really nothing to conserve before Buckley came, save a yellowed document and a cracked bell. William F. Buckley Jr. lives no more, but he leaves behind a Constitution that is not ‘living’ but alive, and a bell that tolls for thee and thine freedom.