I met William F. Buckley Jr. on just a couple of occasions. He gave a talk at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis back around 2000 — one of his last campus talks. He had some spare time in his schedule, including time for a chat with my conservative group at Washington University (which is almost next door to Concordia). What I remember most clearly of the event was a question one student asked about a local Missouri issue: whether the Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to adopt a highway. Buckley didn’t find the issue problematic — no, he said, and state governments are not under any obligation to treat such groups the same way they treat, say, the Kiwanis club or the Washington University fraternities that adopt highways.
Buckley was a brilliant writer and sparkling debater and public personality, especially in his prime. He could charm and disarm practically any opponent, and that quality allowed him quickly to win the approval of the liberal establishment he attacked — much of it, anyway.
His effect on conservatism — on what he still called individualism when he rose to fame in the early 1950s — was revolutionary. The lions of the Old Right were quite old by then, those who were still alive at all. The anti-New Deal Right needed new leadership, and Buckley seemed to be the most articulate and promising young man on the scene, by far. Buckley, however, was a committed cold warrior, a contrast to Old Right figures like Frank Chodorov, John T. Flynn, and Felix Morley, who were still active in the 1950s. Buckley usually — always, to the best of my knowledge — spoke fondly of them. But he took the Right in a very different direction, toward military intervention and a more imperial foreign (and, ultimately, with the concentration of power in the executive, domestic) foreign policy. A famous quote of Buckley’s from Commonweal magazine said that if we had to build a totalitarian bureaucracy on these shores to resist Soviet Communism, so be it.
As charming as he could be to his enemies on the left, when he chose to excommunicate a former friend or colleague from the respectable Right, he was ruthless. The anathemas he pronounced stretched to the grave and beyond, as witness his savage and inaccurate obituary for the libertarian Murray Rothbard, whom Buckley accused of being soft on Khrushchev. Without necessarily agreeing de mortuis nil nisi bonum (that one should say nothing but good things about the dead) even someone less of an admirer of Rothbard than I am might agree that the poor taste and manners on display in Buckley’s obituary reflect poorly on the man who wrote it.
Why would such a socially graceful individual as Buckley write such a thing? Maybe it was ideology: Buckley was so committed to the cold war and all the cliches of cold-war conservatism that anyone at variance with that creed, especially an outspoken “heretic” like Rothbard, could only be a monster. Buckley was a man of tremendous talents. Yet I wonder how much wisdom he had. Toward the end of his life, he found himself critical of the direction conservatism had taken in continuing to support the war in Iraq, a direction that National Review followed wholeheartedly. But the magazine Buckley founded was following the tradition he had set down. WFB may have wished that he had taught his own disciples differently. For my part, I wish he had listened more closely to Frank Chodorov in the 1950s.