William F. Buckley, Jr., for decades skewered liberals with such charm and merriment that most of them ended up liking him. Some even became good friends.
Buckley was a witty public intellectual who almost singlehandedly made conservatism respectable in America. He laid the groundwork for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, even as he advocated legalizing marijuana.
Wealthy and tasteful, Buckley did many things well: played the harpsichord, sailed, wrote a syndicated column, hosted a television program, founded a magazine, circulated among high society and wrote 50 books.
He was famously self confident, writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1986,
I asked myself the other day, ‘Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?’ I couldn’t think of anyone.
William Frank Buckley, Jr., was born on Nov. 24, 1925 in New York City, the sixth of 10 children. His father, William Frank Buckley, Sr., was a Texas-born Irish-Catholic oil baron. His mother, Aloise Steiner Buckley, was a native of New Orleans.
They wanted to name the baby after his father but the priest insisted on a saint’s name. He was baptized ‘William Francis.’ When he was five, he asked his parents if he could change his middle name to Frank. They agreed, and he was a junior.
Despite abandoning the saint’s name, he was a devout Catholic throughout his life. “I grew up, as reported, in a large family of Catholics without even a decent ration of tentativeness among the lot of us about our religious faith,” he wrote. He regularly attended traditional Latin Mass in Connecticut.
William F. Buckley, Sr., moved his family around to Sharon, Conn., London and Mexico while building his fortune. Young Bill’s first language was Spanish; he didn’t learn English until he was seven. When he was eight, he wrote a letter to the king of England demanding repayment of a war debt to the United States.
The 10 Buckley children were tutored to be perfect. According to a family history, they were instructed in “apologetics, art, ballroom dancing, banjo, bird-watching, building boats in bottles, calligraphy, canoeing, carpentry, cooking, driving trotting horses, French, folk-dancing, golf, guitar (Hawaiian and Spanish), harmony, herb-gardening, horsemanship, history of architecture, ice-skating, mandolin, marimba, music appreciation, organ, painting, piano, playing popular music, rumba, sailing, skiing, Spanish, speech, stenography, swimming, tap-dancing, tennis, typing and wood-carving.”
Before college, Buckley joined the Army as a second lieutenant and served on the honor guard for President Franklin D. Roosevelt upon his death.
An Atheistic Nest
At Yale he joined Skull and Bones, was recruited by the CIA and wrote a book critiquing the school as an atheistic nest of liberal degeneracy. God and Man at Yale launched his career as a media figure. He is mentioned in the book The Manchurian Candidate as “that fascinating young man who wrote about man and God at Yale.” He had no use for Harvard, either, saying,
I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.
After college, he worked for the CIA in Mexico City for two years. His boss, E. Howard Hunt, later engineered the Watergate break-in for President Richard Nixon. Hunt and Buckley remained friends for life. Years after he left Mexico, Buckley recalled,
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.
In 1950 he married Patricia Aldyen Austin Taylor. They called each other ‘Ducky’ and had one son, Christopher. At nearly six feet tall, Pat Buckley was a towering, impeccably dressed figure on the social and philanthropic circuit. She was known for her dark wit. Once, John Kenneth Galbraith brought Ted Kennedy to the Buckley’s winter home, a former monastery near Gstaad, Switzerland. Kennedy asked if he could borrow a car to drive back to Gstaad. She replied, “Certainly not – there are three bridges between here and Gstaad.”
Buckley left the CIA and went on to defend U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, found National Review magazine and host the television program Firing Line, which ran for 33 years. He wrote a syndicated column and 50 books, including two autobiographies, sailing journals, spy novels featuring Blackford Oakes and a children’s book he claimed to have written in 45 minutes.
National Review started with a gift of $100,000 from his father and $290,000 from donors. He used the magazine to weave together libertarianism, traditionalism, and anticommunism to create a new brand of conservatism that came to define the modern right. He also launched a generation of conservative pundits and brought his family into the movement. His brother James was elected U.S. Senator from New York. L. Brent Bozell is his brother-in-law and Bill O’Reilly is his nephew.
His Firing Line performances made him an icon of popular culture.
He had an idiosyncratic accent, once described as “upper-class mid-Atlantic and British Received Pronunciation with a southern drawl.” His slashing, witty debate style inspired admiration and mockery. Writers had a field day describing his mannerisms. Wrote Henry Allen in the Washington Post,
…he shot his jaw, tapped his lip with a pen and slouched ever further in his chair, his teeth bared in the grimace that reminded you of a woodchuck and a hung-over duchess at the same time. While the eyebrows — the eyebrows! — wandered off like the vagaries of life itself…
Lily Tomlin as her Ernestine character lampooned him as ‘William Fuhbuckley.’ Comedian David Frye practically made a career out of impersonating him. You can see a clip from Frye’s appearance on The Smothers Brothers Show here. (It starts at 3:50.)
William F. Buckley for Mayor
Buckley ran a quixotic race for mayor of New York City in 1965, during which he refused to use his rebuttal time in a debate with Republican John Lindsay, saying, “I am satisfied to sit back and contemplate my own former eloquence.” When asked what he would do if he won, he said, “Demand a recount.”
By 1968 he was publicly feuding with liberal intellectual Gore Vidal on television and in print. While debating on ABC News the riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi. Buckley replied,
Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.
He later said he regretted calling Vidal ‘queer.’ They sued each other for libel.
In 1973, Nixon appointed Buckley as a delegate to the United Nations, the only official position he ever held. Buckley did play an active role behind the scenes in politics. He organized a committee to unseat Connecticut’s liberal Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker and endorsed his Democratic opponent, Joe Lieberman.
Buckley changed his views over time. He originally supported segregation, but later renounced racism. He spoke out for the legalization of marijuana, though supported a ban on tobacco. Pat died in 2007 after a lifetime of smoking. He never endorsed homosexuality and called for AIDS victims to be tattooed on their buttocks.
William F. Buckley died on Feb. 27, 2008 at his home in Stamford, Conn. A year earlier, he summed up his life – with a memorable quotation, of course:
I get satisfaction of three kinds. One is creating something, one is being paid for it and one is the feeling that I haven’t just been sitting on my ass all afternoon.