To say that Bill Buckley caused a sensation, when he first emerged on the scene with the publication of God and Man at Yale in the spring of 1951, would be an understatement. Just 25 and a recent Yale graduate, he was well known on campus, having been the editor of the Yale Daily News where his editorials were debated, reviled, and praised. But, as wrote John Chamberlain in his preface to the book, nearly everybody on campus thought young Buckley was fighting a losing fight. He was, they thought, on the side of the past.
Yale was in the throes of celebrating its 250th anniversary, and was braced for a rousing good time and expecting praise from every quarter. But the celebration would soon be upstaged by Buckley’s first book, which reported that, contrary to what it was telling its donors and trustees, Yale was not a Christian institution but instead promoting socialism and collectivism. It noted that academic freedom was a hoax as far as anything other than leftists was concerned, and suggested that the alumni should begin to direct the course of education at Yale instead of the administration and faculty.
Within weeks after the book appeared, Buckley was a national phenomenon, and the publisher was having a hard time keeping the book in stock. Yale was, of course, outraged, as was the entire liberal establishment. It was bad enough having such charges made against Yale at all. But the fact that they came from a recent graduate, the editor of the college paper, and someone whose wit and debating skills exceeded those of the outraged made the entire affair untenable. The liberal establishment fell obediently into line and launched attack after attack against Buckley.
McGeorge Bundy, a Yale graduate who would later become a confidante of LBJ and head of the Ford Foundation, was, at the time, teaching at Harvard. In his review for the Atlantic Monthly, which eventually became Yale’s official response, Bundy accused Buckley of being a “twisted and ignorant young man” and claimed that the book was “dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory.” Others blasted Buckley for his Catholicism which, they said, was his motivation for attacking Yale. William Sloane Coffin, Yale’s chaplain, sniffed that Buckley should have gone to Fordham or some other suitably Catholic institution.
Buckley, in his first of thousands of confrontations with the left, could not have been happier; every blast was opportunity for a counterattack, each of which was more polished, more astute, and more cutting than the original blast.
GOD AND MAN AT YALE was Buckley’s opening salvo. He never let up. He told me, a couple of years ago, that he never had any free and unfilled time — he was, he said, busy from the minute he got up (early) in the morning until he went to bed (late) at night. He had just finished, before he died, a book on Barry Goldwater, to be published in May, and was working on another on Ronald Reagan. He died at his desk.
Buckley became the heart and soul of the conservative movement. It had no better advocate, no better promoter, no better theoretician, and his contribution to not only conservatism but American political life as a whole will remain unmatched for years to come. But he was more than a philosopher, more than a polemicist, more than a great writer. He was also a whole man, whose humanness was best exemplified by three attributes — attributes that made him the person he was: generosity, civility, and friendship.
Bill Buckley was an enormously generous man. Although he was in constant demand, constantly on the go, constantly in the news, he always made time for people who needed a boost. Whenever I asked his advice, or asked him to write a blurb for a book I was publishing, or an introduction, he would take time from his busy schedule to confer, or to write what I needed, always without remuneration. When I was working on my book Upstream, he gave me two days of uninterrupted time before my tape recorder in what became one of the most valuable interviews that I did, full of insights, stories, reminiscences and wisdom. Regardless of who he was talking to or the topic, Buckley exuded civility and good humor, often devastating some liberal with whom he was arguing with the most impish smile imaginable. And although friendships probably came naturally to Buckley, he worked on them as well, and the result was simply an astounding collection of people whom he could call friends.
Few people are so fortunate as to leave their mark on the world. In Bill Buckley, the world has lost someone who certainly did leave his. The conservative movement is fortunate to be able to claim him as its own.
Alfred S. Regnery is publisher of The American Spectator and author of the new book Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism (Threshold/Simon & Schuster).