When our friend William F. Buckley Jr. died on February 27 at 82, the world poured forth a library of grateful recollection. His passing made the cover of Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, and the front page of The New York Times. National Review, which Bill Buckley founded in 1955 when he was only 29, devoted almost all of its issue for March 24 to memorializing his accomplishments —literary, political, journalistic, nautical, oenological, social, musical, philanthropic, gustatory, and philological (that’s the short list). As far as we know, only one or two mephitic breathes of resentment wafted out from the petulant fever wards of political atavism that Bill Buckley had manfully quarantined in his early years at National Review. The overwhelming response interwove admiration, sadness, and gratitude in more or less equal proportions.

Endeavoring to epitomize Bill Buckley’s achievement, many of the eulogies settled on his role in resuscitating American conservatism. As was often said, he rescued conservatism from its sect-like status as a talisman for the perpetually disgruntled while at the same time honing it into an effective weapon in the battle against the enormity of Communism and its many bureaucratic domestications. The magnificent victory over Soviet tyranny at the end of the 1980s led some observers to conclude that the work of conservatism was finished, or at least redeployed to the department of mopping-up operations. Bill never made that mistake. He knew that the totalitarian temptation was an abiding feature of modern life, and he was ever alert to its insinuations in the beguiling rhetoric of egalitarianism and statist dispensation. The question was never whether socialism and all its works were an encroaching evil. That, for Bill, was axiomatic. The question was rather what were the most effective responses.

Note the plural. Bill understood that the battle against socialism—against the incursions of state power into the interstices of everyday life—was a battle that embraced more than politics. Or perhaps we should say that he understood that the politics of liberty could only succeed in a world where individual prerogative triumphed over politics. In many of the recollections by Bill’s friends, you will find a sentence that, edged with some surprise, tells you that conversations with Bill seldom revolved around politics. Music, yes. Books, to be sure. Sailing, you bet. The plot of his latest novel, ditto. But politics in any ordinary sense was but an intermittent object of attention, subservient to more humanizing concerns. The important thing to understand is that Bill’s devotion to private pursuits was not in conflict with his conservative political determination but was a fulfillment of it. The English philosopher Roger Scruton put it well in his book The West and the Rest:

Western civilization is composed of communities held together by a political process, and by the rights and duties of the citizen as defined by that process. Paradoxically, it is the existence of this political process that enables us to live without politics. Having consigned the business of government to defined offices, occupied successively by people who are the servants and not the masters of those who elected them, we can devote ourselves to what really matters—to the private interests, personal loves, and social customs in which we find our satisfaction. Politics, in other words, makes it possible to separate society from the state, so removing politics from our private lives.
As Scruton stresses, this removal is not an abrogation but rather a triumph of politics, a triumph threatened wherever the preferments of individual freedom are besieged by collectivist zeal. Bill Buckley touched and improved countless lives. He created and nurtured a score of important institutions. He was part of the tonic that revitalized the appetite for ordered liberty and helped defeat one of the most monstrous tyrannies in history. It speaks less to the irony than to the amplitude of Bill’s vision that he undertook these initiatives not to further a political agenda but to rescue us from one.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 8, on page 1
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