Everybody with an interest in politics knows who William F Buckley was. A transformational figure in American political culture, he more than any other individual founded modern conservatism. I was first introduced to his work indirectly, as a reader of the national review. At the time I was unaware of the publication’s storied history. After taking a long break from it for several years I eventually resubscribed and have become a loyal reader again.
But Buckley was already dead by then, so how did I come across him? As I continue to grow older and ever more aware I’ve been becoming more and more of a research hound as my time allows. Well I found myself reading about the founding of the National Review and this led me to light reading about Mr. Buckley as a natural extension.
This was when I discovered firing line, or more accurately discovered that it was still available. You see the Hoover Institute at Stanford is the official curator of the firing line collection and is slowly making it available on their YouTube channel and website. I began watching old episodes religiously. This was my first real introduction to him.
I was fascinated from the very first moment. I was entranced by his conviction and quick wit. I was enamored with his command of so very many topics and his ability to skillfully debate and civilly discuss virtually anything that came up. It impressed upon me the true power of ideas. It made me come to direct terms with the importance of debate.
All of this led me to read and research more on the man himself. The facts of his life are mostly beyond dispute and I won’t spend much or any time on it. The real importance is, and what really shaped me, is his beliefs. The creation of “fusionism” and a sort of “big tent” theory spurred not just a right-wing revival, but also quite a share of controversy. This is all should have been expected, and today needs to be reconciled. After all what else can you expect when you try, and mostly succeed, in rallying together populists, traditionalists, classical liberals, modern conservatives, and more all in one movement?
Anyone who reads deeply about him can see in him a mild evolution over time. I’m speaking of course of his most controversial views, and that with which he has been smeared the most on the right and the left. There is no doubt that he was a cold warrior, and there is no doubt that he was a very public culture warrior. “The South must prevail” was an extremely controversial editorial he wrote during the desegregation and civil rights era. He eventually retracted it and I am convinced that it might be his greatest regret. You can see and hear this regret, and what seems to be a personal commitment to atone for it in his writing and speaking over time as he slowly becomes more culturally accepting. Eventually reaching the point where he would occasionally self-identity as a libertarian.
His commitment to free markets and personal liberty, his evolution to realize the fallacy of moral regulation but acceptance of morality itself, and his willingness to bring arguments and counter-arguments to the people themselves, and finally his devotion to battling the evil of totalitarian Marxism all helped fully actualize my politics. Buckley and Heinlein and the reconciling of the two shaped me into the politico that I am today, and I would not think as I think without both of them. I can only pray that someday I am able to have half the influence and impact of either of these American intellectual titans.