Bill Buckley

Bill Buckley died Wednesday at 82 at his home in Connecticut. He was the most influential public intellectual of his generation in this country, maybe the world.

More than anyone, even Goldwater or Reagan, he was the father of modern conservatism, which was as much an intellectual as a political movement from 1955, when he founded the National Review, to 2000 when, under Bush and DeLay, the movement foundered in a sea of law breaking, war mongering and greed.

I got to know Buckley a little in the 1990s, debating him on his show, Firing Line. The show, the longest running with a single host in TV history, was civil, substantive and high minded; in short, the opposite of everything political talk shows have since become.

Off camera he was witty and articulate and also gracious and warm. A couple of years after the show went off the air I was running for Governor of Connecticut and bumped into him. He put his hand gently on my arm and said, softly, "I will vote against you with the deepest affection."

Buckley evolved over time from one who insisted the constitution forbade us from ending segregation, to one who supported civil rights laws and a national holiday for Martin Luther King.
But the underlying tenets of his thought, grounded in his Roman Catholicism and equally fervent beliefs in free republics and free markets, remained consistent.

It didn't always keep him close to the leaders of his party or of the movement he had led. On the National Review website, Buckley identified himself as a "libertarian conservative," a designation that separated him, ever so slightly, from the excesses of his crowd.

He saw Viet Nam as a mistake and parted company with Bush over Iraq. He sailed to international waters to try marijuana before calling for legalization. His lovely book Nearer My God reveals a real spirituality, as opposed to the hateful, hypocritical swill peddled as religion by his party. Sam Tanenhaus, author of a much anticipated biography, says Buckley couldn't bear Ann Coulter.

I first met Buckley a decade before our Firing Line encounters at a reception for an ailing Mike Harrington, socialist and author of 'The Other America.' Harrington truly regarded Buckley as a friend. So did John Kenneth Galbraith. So did most liberals Buckley knew.

Buckley loved debate. Unlike today's cowardly conservatives, he debated the best minds he could entice on to a stage. He never used his opponents as props or punch lines for fixed fights. He liked them. Loving his own ideas, not just hating theirs, left room for liking them.

What a long sad fall from Bill Buckley to Bill O' Reilly. I'm not part of the crowd that says if we can just get along everything will be alright. But I am part of the crowd that thinks learning to get along better will help.

To get out of Iraq or into a new health care system will require some hard fighting, but also some hard thinking and most of all reasoned arguments to persuade, if not the opposition, certainly the public.

If you want to see how far we are from having that kind of debate, watch an old episode of Firing Line and then watch a random hour of live cable television. That's how far.

Bill Buckley raised an army against a liberal establishment. Like Barry Goldwater, he often dissented in later years from a conservative establishment he helped create.

The political debate Buckley launched is over, many of its old categories defunct. To shape a new debate we'll need at least a few people with the intellect, humanity, civility and great good humor of Bill Buckley. I hope we find them.