William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, whose penchant for the pen beginning in his earliest years at Yale popularized the conservative movement and transformed a generation of American politics, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 82.
The cause was not immediately known, but Buckley, a former News chairman, had been ill and suffered from emphysema and diabetes.
From his days as an eloquent orator in debates at the Yale Political Union as an undergraduate to his decades as a prolific columnist, editor, author and television host, Buckley was a force to be reckoned with in weaving his conservative principles into the mid- to late-20th century American fabric — principles developed, in large part, during his time at Yale.
To liberals, he was, as the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. famously put it, “the scourge of American liberalism.” To his fellow conservatives, he was an icon larger than life, a man known as much for his thinking as for his sailing; for his sharp wit as much as his ceaseless efforts to preserve his idea of America.
“Prior to Bill Buckley, there was a sense of impending doom in conservatism,” former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told the News on Wednesday. “But he punctured the intellectual foibles of so many liberals and so many academics. He created the sense that conservatism was at least an intellectual peer of liberalism.”
And it all began in New Haven.
“Bill Buckley,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger confided by phone Wednesday, “was an essential part of my life.”
But, a half-century ago, Buckley was merely trying to make his voice heard. One night in February 1950, near the end of his term as chairman of the News, Buckley stood in the Law School auditorium before the presidents of the major East Coast universities for the newspaper’s year-end banquet, purportedly to honor the retiring Yale president, Charles Seymour.
Even at the age of 24, Buckley had already developed no shortage of notoriety; he was, at the time, known among New England academics as a “right-wing firebrand” with “little respect for established authority,” as a 1988 biography put it.
“He was almost a God-like figure,” said Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, an emeritus professor and Yale historian who was a friend of Buckley’s. “His political views were very well known. As chairman of the News, he had been writing these thunderous editorials from the position of the right wing.”
And when Buckley, a member of Davenport College, rose to introduce the banquet’s guest of honor, he did not divert from that message. Instead of extolling Seymour, he had another point to make: Yale and its peers should be promoting “active Christianity” and defending free enterprise, not betraying their heritage.
“The guests,” a reporter at the banquet wrote, “were shaken.”
Of course, when he first came to Yale, Buckley was the one who was shaken. “It took us just about five minutes at the Yale campus,” his brother F. Reid Buckley ’52 once recalled, “to realize that what the establishment there stood for was radically opposed to what we had been brought up to think was correct.”
But Buckley pushed back. As a freshman, he railed against the establishment of a student council, which he feared would become a liberal citadel. And later, as News czar, he found a larger platform. His editorials were read across the nation and had a significant impact on American political debate. On campus, Buckley’s writings were anticipated by students — but even more so by faculty.
Rev. Sidney Lovett ’50, a member of the secret society Skull & Bones with Buckley, recalled that the class of 1950, the first to matriculate after World War II, found itself at Yale during a time devoid of much discourse. Not that Buckley cared.
“There was a relaxed readiness at the time,” Lovett said. “But Buckley wouldn’t let you relax.”
And Buckley never relaxed as chair of the editorial board, as he wrote one or two editorials a day on the failures of both communism overseas and progressive veterans legislation in Washington, D.C.
With every editorial he wrote, his remarks became more cutting; his commentaries, more jarring.
People paid attention, said Sam Tanenhaus GRD ’78, the New York Times Book Review Editor who is working on a forthcoming biography of Buckley.
“He was the most important student journalist of his time,” he said. “He was actually becoming famous for the editorials he wrote.”
Born November 24, 1925, in New York, William Frank Buckley Jr. — known as Bill — was the sixth of 10 children of Aloise Steiner Buckley and William Frank Buckley Sr., a wealthy oil baron. He spent his childhood in France and England and, for high school, attended the Millbrook School, a respected prep school in New York State.
“He was cocky, brash, bright and witty,” his older sister Jane once recalled. “These were not endearing qualities,” she added, “if you felt you were not as bright as he.”
From 1943 to 1944, Buckley attended the University of Mexico, then went on to serve two years in the U.S. Army. After graduating from Yale in 1950 with a degree in political science, history and economics, he married Patricia Alden Austin Taylor, who died last April.
Newly-graduated and newly-married, Buckley considered writing a book on American higher education, which he ultimately decided would require too much research. But he quickly realized that he had more to say about the University than had filled his News editorials.
Professors, he thought, were forcing their liberal ideology on students, and the University needed to do something about it.
So he sat down to write.
Yale officials — including newly-installed president A. Whitney Griswold — dreaded the book after hearing about early manuscripts. One prominent University donor tried to persuade Buckley to withdraw the book, with the promise that Griswold would “clean up” Yale.
But Buckley did not budge, and he fought against any suspicion that he was disloyal to the institution that had nursed him for four years.
“I consider myself to be loyal to the Yale tradition to an extent very few people at Yale are,” Buckley wrote the donor.
The day the book was released, the manager of the Yale Co-op called Buckley’s publisher in exasperation. There were more students waiting outside the bookstore, ready to get their hands on Buckley’s tome, than there were copies in the store.
In the book, titled “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’,” Buckley assailed the Yale faculty for abandoning what he described as principles of individualism and religion and condemned them for abandoning Yale’s Christian heritage.
“I was one of a small group of students,” Buckley wrote in the foreward to the book. “who fought against those who seek to subvert religion and individualism.”
In the reviews that followed, Buckley found praise — but also vitriol. Perhaps most famously, McGeorge Bundy ’40, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, called Buckley’s book “dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author.”
In alumni circles, the book prompted outrage. Smith, who worked as an aide to Griswold for a year following his graduation, recalls spending some of his time drafting correspondence to angst-ridden alumni who said they were left disconcerted by Buckley’s book.
“Many of the alumni were conservatives,” Tanenhaus explained, “and Buckley was saying the Yale they were supporting wasn’t the actual Yale they knew.”
Charles Hill, Yale’s current diplomat-in-residence, noted that the book had influence even among those who could not fully appreciate its detailed examination of Yale at the time. And, perhaps most important of all, it drew attention to Buckley, Hill said.
“It was a shocking thing, to have someone writing essentially as an undergraduate and taking on the establishment,” he said.
Shocking, maybe. But Buckley’s reach would only expand.
After the book was released, Buckley served a short stint in the Central Intelligence Agency, and then worked as a freelance writer. At Yale, meanwhile, the furor over his book had subsided. “Religious life at Yale is deeper and richer than it has been in many years,” concluded a University committee ostensibly established to rebut Buckley’s book.
In 1955, only five years removed from his days as an undergraduate and with the financial backing of his father, Buckley founded National Review, which today remains a leading conservative magazine.
The magazine, Buckley wrote, would be an outlet for “the disciples of truth, who defend the organic moral order.” It would, Buckley vowed, “stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’ ”
Richard Brookhiser ’77, today senior editor at National Review, said Buckley revered his magazine above all of his other work.
“National Review was his most enduring legacy,” he said.
Buckley’s legacy lives on not just in the magazine’s pages, Brookhiser said, but also in each of its writers. Brookhiser himself began writing for National Review at the ripe age of 15. Buckley was open to all writers — no matter their age.
And he was also open to viewpoints dramatically different from his own.
Stephen Calabresi ’80 LAW ’83, a professor at Northwestern Law School and founder of the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative law students, noted that Buckley placed a premium, above all else, on discourse.
“He cared not what you thought, only that you thought,” Calabresi said. “Because if you thought, you would eventually come around to his point of view.”
Indeed, from 1966 to 1999, Buckley also hosted the Emmy-winning interview show “Firing Line,” prodding guests ranging from Jack Kerouac to Margaret Thatcher, not to mention every sitting U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton LAW ’73. And over the years, Buckley would author dozens of books, as well as a bi-weekly newspaper column, “On the Right,” which was syndicated to more than 300 newspapers.
“He founded a magazine, wrote over 50 books, influenced the course of political history, had a son, had two grandchildren and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean three times,” his son, the writer and Yale Daily News Magazine co-founder Christopher Buckley ’75, told The Associated Press. “He really didn’t leave any stone unturned.”
Gingrich, an occasional guest on Firing Line, said Buckley never failed to amaze him in the extent to which he could oratorically dominate a debate.
“His erudition, his command of the English language and sense of élan told me that we could be on offense and not just defense against the left,” Gingrich said.
And beyond his speaking prowess, in the comfort of his study, he was just as much a force: He missed his deadline, on average, less than once per decade. And on top of that, he traveled all around the country, often delivering more than 70 lectures per year. He even squeezed in a failed bid to be mayor of New York City.
Buckley’s more than 5,000 columns — including one he wrote for the News in 2006 after the death of former University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 DIV ’56, a friend and frequent rhetorical foe — amounted to an estimated 4.5 million words over the decades. As a writer, dashing off columns in as little as 20 minutes, he was nothing short of prolific.
And, as he saw it, nothing short of correct, too.
“I am, I fully grant, a phenomenon, but not because of any speed in composition,” he wrote in The New York Times 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.”
He may have come across as confident, but to those on the right, Buckley’s place in American political history should not be underestimated.
“All great Biblical stories begin with Genesis,” the columnist George F. Will wrote in 1980. “And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater, there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.”
Perhaps conservatism in America owes at least part of its prominence to Buckley’s wicked wit and sharp humor.
Michael Medved ’69, a conservative talk-radio host, recalled how Buckley transformed perceptions of the right.
“Buckley made it fun to be a conservative,” Medved said. “He changed the image that was prevalent — the image of a conservative in his time was of Bob Taft, an older, grouchy guy. But Buckley loved sailing, literature, life. And even people who disagreed with him on everything found him a delightful gentleman.”
Personality aside, Hill said, Buckley’s influence was enormous.
“He created American conservatism single-handedly — through National Review,” Hill said. “It became the focal point for an intellectual movement that went forward but also began to gather ideas that were conservative from the past.”
Calabresi, the Federalist Society founder, said Buckley was in many ways the inspiration for the group of conservative law students that is now a national presence.
“We learned from Buckley the importance of ideas and careful, deep thought about policy issues and also the value of debate and good discussion.”
Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito LAW ’75 , Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 are all Federalist Society members. In a sense, then, Calabresi noted, they are all disciples of Buckley.
Kissinger shared in extolling Buckley’s impact on American politics.
“He created, starting upon graduation, a conservative movement that did not exist before,” he said. “He gave it an intellectual dimension.”
Even a half-century later, that movement continues to leave its mark. In the second Bush White House on Wednesday, in hallway conversations and in e-mail messages between aides, word began to spread about Buckley’s death — and the mood turned somber.
“He influenced a lot of people, including me,” said Christopher Michel ’03, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush ’68. “He brought together deep thought and a light spirit; he was able to combine great wisdom with good humor, something that made him effective – and made him a great model for all those who follow him.”
In a statement Wednesday, Bush remembered Buckley as “one of the great founders of the modern conservative movement.”
“America has lost one of its finest writers and thinkers,” the President said. “He brought conservative thought into the political mainstream, and helped lay the intellectual foundation for America’s victory in the Cold War and for the conservative movement that continues to this day.”
While presidents came and went over the course of his career, Buckley’s allegiance to his alma mater remained constant.
While he asserted his loyalty to Yale amid the angst surrounding his first book, he proved it over the generations — at least in terms of interest in the University’s affairs, if not friendly relations with Woodbridge Hall.
In fall 1967, Buckley tried to land a seat on the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, but University administrators moved to block his election. At the time, Yale’s admissions officers had begun reducing the proportion of each incoming class comprised of the sons of alumni.
Yale, Buckley declared, was no longer the “kind of place where your family goes for generations.” Instead, he said, it had been twisted into an institution in which “the son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere.”
He had a familiar complaint, too. “Somebody’s got to protest the almost total absence of conservatives on the faculty,” Buckley said when he announced his bid.
Successful or not, Buckley was undeterred in his determination to protect Yale from what he deemed further degradation. In 1991, he rallied against his own secret society, Skull & Bones, after its senior class tapped women for the first time. Buckley and his fellow Bonesmen went as far as locking the students out of the society’s tomb in protest.
“Bill Buckley led the fight,” Smith said. “That,” he added, “was not one of his greater moments.”
Buckley, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 from George H.W. Bush ’48, may have held unpopular positions over the years, but to those who knew him, he was nothing like the Republican menace some on the left may wished to portray him as.
His effect was felt on a personal level as a mentor to all, or, as Newsweek columnist and Yale Corporation member Fareed Zakaria ’86 put it, as “a prince.”
Zakaria recalled sending an invitation for Buckley to speak at the YPU on a whim during his time at Yale. To Zakaria’s surprise, Buckley accepted and even invited the former YPU chair to spend a day sailing.
Generations of Yalies recall similar times at sea with Buckley.
Admitting there was more to life than politics, he was ever-enamoured with the harpsichord, even after he could no longer play it himself. At his home in Stamford several months ago, he instructed a News editor to try his hand at Buckley’s favorite instrument. And when Smith was the master of Pierson College, Buckley visited for a Master’s Tea — not about politics, but about sailing.
To hear him, students climbed on the windowsills in the Pierson dining hall. It was the most heavily-attended Master’s Tea he ever hosted, Smith recalled. And politics never came up.
“He wasn’t one of these attack dog right-wingers who will destroy you because you don’t agree with him; he was friendly, he loved to entertain,” Smith said. “I think that entertaining, for Bill Buckley, was his principal purpose in life.”
In 2000, 50 years after he received his bachelor’s degree from Yale, the University recognized him at commencement with an honorary doctorate.
“As a writer, debater and familiar television personality, you have advanced your ideas with eloquence, wit, intellect and style,” his award citation read. “At Yale, your sharp, youthful observations stirred controversy but also challenged us to self-examination.”
University President Richard Levin said Wednesday that despite Buckley’s incisive attacks on the University during his undergraduate years, he remained a loyal, committed friend of the University over the years, returning to campus often.
Indeed, he even taught at Yale: As an undergraduate, due to a shortage of Spanish professors, he led an introductory class in the language. Later, he would teach in the residential college seminar program.
And, as Buckley continued to return to Yale, in the public realm, he seemed indelibly linked to the institution.
“His reputation as a social critic and conservative thinker was very much shaped by his work at Yale and his book about Yale,” Levin said. “No doubt he was a great Yale figure. He was provocative, controversial, challenging — but we’re proud to have him as part of the Yale family.”
In November 2006, Buckley returned to Yale to address the YPU, and stunned those in attendance by declaring that his remarks would amount to his final public speech on public affairs.
And even in his valedictory — his typical lock-jaw accent intact, but aggravated by a recurring cough and burdened by apparent fatigue — he was no less direct about the principles in which he believed. “The Democrats are dominated by greedy, hypocritical thought,” Buckley said in his speech.
Buckley is survived by his son; brothers Reid and James; and sisters Priscilla, Carol and Patricia. But around the country, he is survived by millions of others who turned his biting editorials into a national movement: those who read his magazine, savored in his witticisms and embraced his polysyllabic but never polemical prose.
Buckley wrote in e-mail messages to the News over the last year that he was in ailing health. But his death Wednesday was unexpected. He died at work in his study, ever the writer.