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U.S.: William F. Buckley Jr. Remembered

By John O'Sullivan (AFP) Eighteen years ago, almost exactly one year after the Berlin Wall came down, William F. Buckley Jr., who died on February 27 at his home in Connecticut, was on a political tour of Central Europe and the still extant Soviet Union in a delegation of American conservatives.

In almost all the countries he visited he was greeted with great enthusiasm by their new democratic leaders. Even in the Soviet Union he was treated with respectful curiosity by reformist leaders whose empire was slowly crashing around them.

Bill -- as he was universally known -- was at first slightly puzzled by his apparent celebrity. Then it was explained to him. Some of these government ministers, heads of new political parties, and editors of old national newspapers (with new editorial lines) had read smuggled copies of his anticommunist "National Review" magazine during the long years that the communists had condemned them to work as stokers and quarry men.

Others knew that Bill had organized an anticommunist rally in New York's Carnegie Hall to protest Nikita Khruschev's visit to the United States at a time when many Western politicians and commentators were urging people to overlook the crimes of communism and the continuing repression of the Soviet bloc in the interests of world peace.

Bill took the phrase "captive nations" seriously. He seriously wanted to liberate the peoples living under Soviet tyranny. Probably he thought that it would never happen in his lifetime. But it had. As a result Bill was a celebrity to people whom he assumed had never heard of him in places he had never expected to visit in freedom.

Of course, Bill was used to being a celebrity. He became one in the United States in his early 20s when, only a recent graduate, he wrote the book "God and Man at Yale" that castigated the American university for its godlessness and unreflective progressivism.

Tilting At Windmills

It was a young man's book, tilting wildly and wittily at some pompous academic windmills. Bill might not have agreed with all his own arguments -- a critique of academic freedom, for instance -- 30 years later. But the liberal academy foolishly took offense at this young conservative gadfly. The book caused a national storm. Introduced by this controversy to the American public -- and in particular to the embattled conservative minority in New Deal America -- Bill, a brilliant natural debater, was off and running. He was famous for the rest of his life.

But he was not famous for being famous. He probably packed more activities into what Kipling called "the unforgiving minute" than any man alive. He sailed all the oceans of the world -- and wrote about it. He served as a U.S. diplomat at the UN -- and wrote about it. He played the harpsichord (in public with an orchestra) -- and wrote about it. He was -- briefly after university -- a CIA agent -- and wrote about it in a series of Cold War thrillers about a CIA agent called Blackford Oakes. With his glamorous wife, Pat, he lived the high life among the celebrities of New York society. He wrote about that too -- in a series of very funny books with names like "Cruising Speed." And he wrote several conventional novels, a play, innumerable magazine articles, and three newspaper columns a week for 40 years.

Not everything that Bill attempted was a success. His harpsichord playing, his play, and very likely his CIA spying were attempted on G.K. Chesterton's principle that if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly. His writing, however, was done with great professionalism -- he never missed a deadline. Most other activities he embarked on with the joy of the inspired amateur -- and also with the inspired amateur's unexpected successes.

When Bill ran in 1965 as the candidate of a tiny conservative party to be mayor of New York, he was asked what his first official act would be if he was elected. He replied, "Demand a recount." He didn't need to do that. He lost. But he scored many more votes than anyone expected. And that unexpected success began the rise of the modern American conservative movement that put Ronald Reagan in the White House, revived the American spirit, created the information capitalism that now bestrides the world, and won the Cold War.

Conservative Chic

Bill's part in the rise of American conservatism is second only to that of Ronald Reagan -- and perhaps not even to him. At the young age of 30, Bill established the "National Review." He persuaded brilliant talents such as James Burnham and Milton Friedman to write for it. And he used the magazine to reconcile the quarrelsome factions of conservatism -- economic libertarians, moral traditionalists, foreign-policy hawks -- around a new philosophy resting on anticommunism, free markets, and traditional Judaeo-Christian values.

It's often said that Buckley's "National Review" made conservatism respectable by purging it of anti-Semitism and other political viruses. That's true and important -- but perhaps not quite so important as that Bill personally made conservatism chic and sophisticated. As host of the "Firing Line" program of television interviews for 30 years, he took on eminent liberals from J.K. Galbraith to Woody Allen in spirited debate, often dispatching them with better arguments and better jokes.

Conservatives were used to being treated as provincial rednecks, if not worse, in the liberal culture of the 1950s and 1960s. When this elegant witty New York socialite appeared on their television screens carving up leading liberals with great geniality -- for Galbraith and others were his personal friends -- he made such condescension look simply silly. Bill never stood for election again after his 1965 defeat in New York. But every conservative elected since then, Republican or Democrat, is in his debt -- and a line of them stood up yesterday in the U.S. Senate to say so.

When Bill retired as editor of the "National Review" in 1988, he asked me to succeed him as editor. I edited the magazine for the next 10 years. Bill became a dear friend and I mourn his passing. News of his death reached me here at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. It was an oddly comforting place to hear it since Prague is one of the great European cities Bill helped to liberate from communism. Yes, the world today looks more complicated and unsettled than in the heady days of 1990. But Bill always said that freedom wasn't easy. He just made it look easy.

(John O'Sullivan is executive editor of RFE/RL.)

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