Wednesday, February 27, 2008

RIP William F. Buckley Jr.

By Rick Morris

Today saw the passing of an icon, one of the truly influential figures of the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps fittingly, William F. Buckley Jr. passed away at his desk, probably preparing another brilliant column from his incomparable mind.

Almost singlehandedly, he helped forge what would come to be known as the conservative movement in the mid-1950s, when the New Deal was still the dominant influence in national politics and good old placid Ike was presiding over a solidification of the second American Revolution that FDR instituted by executive fiat two decades before (just as Ike's VP Tricky Dick Nixon would end up strengthening LBJ's Great Society in the early '70s). There was no countervailing force in the USA standing up for the concept of limited government and a muscular, forward-thinking approach in the Cold War. Bill Buckley pioneered the power that would capture the White House in the form of Reaganism a quarter-century later.

There were times when he would take stands that would annoy his friends and followers. I myself was annoyed by a few of his columns, but that's probably not too bad considering that I've read hundreds of them. What he accomplished was as unique as it was impressive: he pulled together strains from disparate sources and created a coherent intellectual and political movement that will outlive him for centuries, even though it is severely bruised at the moment.

I was influenced greatly by his National Review magazine and I was thrilled as a young public policy intern in D.C. to find a treasure trove of old NRs boxed up in the basement of the living quarters I inhabited at the time. I wasn't permitted to take any of them with me, but I greatly enjoyed delving into the chance to see how Buckley and his writers were assessing the important events of the Cold War era as they unfolded. That same year, as a young firebrand attending the Young Americans for Freedom national convention, I had the pleasure of hearing Buckley speak to our banquet. I was thrilled for my good friend Stu Grimes, who had become a national officer of the group and consequently got to be photographed shaking hands with the legend himself. YAF is an important although overlooked part of the Buckley legacy, as he helped found the group and write one of the most important philosophical statements of our time, The Sharon Statement:

"In this time of moral and political crises, it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths.

We, as young conservatives, believe:

That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual's use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force;

That liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom;

That the purpose of government is to protect those freedoms through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice;

That when government ventures beyond these rightful functions, it accumulates power, which tends to diminish order and liberty;

That the Constitution of the United States is the best arrangement yet devised for empowering government to fulfill its proper role, while restraining it from the concentration and abuse of power;

That the genius of the Constitution- the division of powers- is summed up in the clause that reserves primacy to the several states, or to the people, in those spheres not specifically delegated to the Federal government;

That the market economy, allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand, is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom and constitutional government, and that it is at the same time the most productive supplier of human needs;

That when government interferes with the work of the market economy, it tends to reduce the moral and physical strength of the nation; that when it takes from one man to bestow on another, it diminishes the incentive of the first, the integrity of the second, and the moral autonomy of both;

That we will be free only so long as the national sovereignty of the United States is secure; that history shows periods of freedom are rare, and can exist only when free citizens concertedly defend their rights against all enemies;

That the forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to these liberties;

That the United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistance with, this menace; and

That American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?"

It's because of the esteem I have had for so long for National Review that I have not hesitated to criticize it harshly on this blog during this presidential primary season when I felt it lost its way. To reopen those issues today would be disrespectful to Bill Buckley, but I'll note that I firmly believe that the magazine would have been in much better shape had he not bowed out in 2004 -- although I certainly don't begrudge him his right to take it a bit easier in his golden years with his health declining.

The outpouring today on National Review Online is heartening and may portend the beginning of the revival of NR and, dare we hope, perhaps the broader movement it represents. Any column written about him deserves to be read, but I especially suggest the following:

^ the symposium featuring mini-columns from many right-wing luminaries

^ John O'Sullivan's take on how WFB helped to win the Cold War

^ the NRO editorial noting his passing

^ thoughts from many of his appreciative fans

I'm heartened to read in the tributes such an awareness of the specific functions he performed in terms of helping to reshape American political thought. At a time when the conservative movement has lost its way, maybe the refocusing that WFB's passing has brought can regenerate it for a new generation. If you believe in Providential acts as I do, that might have even been the cause of the timing. We can only hope so, and the old genius would no doubt see this as the ultimate tribute. Godspeed Bill Buckley.

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