We learned yesterday morning of the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the leading American intellectuals of the last half-century. Yet, he was far more than just another pundit and columnist. He saw it as his civic duty to ask the difficult questions, bringing controversial issues before the public eye. And he was a Yale Man.
Buckley is known in many roles: founder of the National Review and the TV program Firing Line, lover of sailing and music, as well as a writer of popular spy novels and manuals of erudite vocabulary. However, the common thread that united his many interests was his true commitment to argument from first principles. Not content to discuss day-to-day policy issues, Buckley challenged the foundational assumptions of the liberal regime around him. He realized that a profound conservative movement could be based neither on nihilist assumptions nor racist aesthetics; he refused to tolerate inane assumptions from the left and the insulting ones of the right. At its base, his call was for sound thinking of the first, most fundamental order.
Buckley made his initial mark on America early in his life. Shortly after his graduation from Yale in 1950, he published the seminal “God and Man at Yale,” in which he took on the mindless relativism of the academy. As detailed in the book, Buckley, upon his matriculation, discovered a patrician Yale. The students he knew were comfortable materially and inevitably directed toward careers in world affairs. They had it made, and regardless of their political orientations, they took as given the irrelevance of the past. At Yale, he was chairman of the Board of the Yale Daily News, a member of the Elizabethan Club and an active participant of the Conservative Party in the Yale Political Union.
We Yalies all are heirs to Buckley’s legacy in at least three ways. The rigor with which he pursued the ideas at the heart of policy should motivate each of us to dispense with unfounded assumptions and to consider well our own fundamental principles. The ease with which he dismissed incoherence — he refused to debate Communists because one cannot argue with someone who believes the moon to be made of green cheese — should warn us about the potential of distraction posed by a mindless tolerance of everyone’s viewpoint, no matter how ill-founded. He was also famously loyal; though he argued with his alma mater over its dogmatic liberalism, he always took an active interest in its doings.
Buckley returned to campus last year to address the YPU, citing it as his last public address. Before the debate, he joined several members of the Union at Mory’s. Also at Mory’s that night was Lanny Davis, another former News editor and key ally of Clinton. Davis was on campus advocating for Joseph Lieberman, yet another former chairman of the News.
Sitting on the edge of his seat, waiting for Buckley’s arrival, Davis heard that the aging WFB was climbing up Mory’s venerable stairs; he leapt out and shouted, “Who was the best chairman of the Daily News since William Buckley and Joe Lieberman?” The two Yale giants, patriots from both sides of the aisle, embraced as a dozen undergraduates watched. Buckley and Davis exchanged banter — Buckley told Davis how he had just voted absentee for Lieberman, Davis reminded Buckley that Lieberman’s problem was that too many people like Buckley liked him.
William F. Buckley, Jr. was a national hero. He made American conservatism a viable political force, and he made possible an honest conversation about the future of our country and our civilization. Buckley’s philosophy and the country he left us are true evidence that ideas have consequences. Buckley’s anti-Communisim and advocacy for free markets changed the world. Before that, however, he forever changed one debating society on a single university campus. We are all the better for it.
Katheryn Baldwin and Michael Pomeranz are both juniors in Silliman College. They are former chairmen of the Conservative Party.