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.
Bill Buckley died in February of 2008 at the age of 82 on the cusp of Barack Obama's ascendancy to the presidency of the United States. I would like to think that he died with his vision of America intact. I say that as someone who was not exactly included in that vision. He was adamantly against the civil rights movement. Buckley wrote the following in 1957 when I was not quite five years old:
”…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."
True to his intellectual rigor, his sense of fairness, and his essential decency, he repudiated this view.
Yet, he still held that view at a time when its effect was most crucial. Barry Goldwater came to repudiate it in later life as well. Conversely, Ronald Reagan put the shining happy face of neoconservatism on it. Reagan’s invocation of “The Welfare Queen” and George H. W. Bush’s demonizing of presidential rival Michael Dukakis via the dark-skinned boogey man of Willie Horton are of a piece. They diminished the nation’s political debate and laid the groundwork for the cynical, self-interested, pseudo-conservatism of Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Grover Norquist.
Again, I like to think that Bill Buckley saw through this hucksterism.
Now, the progeny of William F. Buckley’s movement are arguing for the acceptance of torture as a useful and indispensable tool in the fight against America’s enemies. I can’t pretend to think what Buckley might have thought about the present spectacle of American officials equating war crimes with mere trifles.
But I like to think that Mr. Buckley—his prodigious vocabulary shining at the fore—would have warned us against this abomination. I like to think that he would have been a voice of reason sounding the alarm against discarding the rule of law for the sake of political expediency. That is what Richard Cheney and those who assist him are doing now. They are trying to convince us that we have to break international law in order to save it.
Cheney. Rumsfeld, Rice, and the other Bush administration officials responsible for this country’s descent into torture as national policy should be held to account. It’s a view I hold partially because William F. Buckley laid forth an example that I follow. Our country is worth cherishing. Our country is worth consideration in national affairs. And the price we pay for that is that our country’s ideals are worth upholding.
Bill Buckley and I may have disagreed on the best way to do so, but we agreed.