I was 20 years old and in Vietnam when I first became acquainted with William F. Buckley. It was during a late night beer drinking session in the barracks, with a half dozen GI’s sitting around arguing politics when a fellow Airman asked me if I was familiar with National Review. I was not, and was only vaguely familiar with William F. Buckley. I had probably read his column, On The Right, which I seem to recall, was carried in our local Republican newspaper, but I did not know a lot about him. The next day, the fellow GI gave me my first copy of National Review. I did not know it at the time, but that was a momentous moment and impacted my life.
I grew up in a family that daily watched the evening TV news and read the daily newspaper. My parents always voted and took the responsibilities of citizenship seriously. The news of the day was discussed around the dinner table. My parents were intelligent and informed but neither were college graduates or what one would consider intellectuals. My parents were both Republicans and as I grew up, I essentially adopted their political outlook.
Most of my political education came from my father. His political opinions, other than from the daily newspaper, were formed by what we would now call the “Religious Right”. The Sword of the Lord, a publication of Bob Jones University that I am sure I would now see as narrow minded and perhaps even racist, was an early source of political information. When I was in about the 7th and 8th grade my Dad drove me to school each morning and we would listen on the radio to the Reverend Carl McIntire, a dissident Presbyterian ministry whose message was anti-National Council of Churches and anti-communist. As a little older teen, I discovered another member of the religious right, the Reverend Billy James Hargus and the Christian Crusade, whose “ministry” was also anti-communism and general promotion of the conservative agenda. My early political education came primarily from these religious-tinted conservative sources. Somewhere along the way, I also became acquainted with the John Birch Society.
About the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I discovered another political perspective when I read Atlas Shrugged, the famous novel by Ayn Rand. Rand was thought provoking and excited me and challenged some of the religious right opinion to which I was being exposed. So, I had influence from two extremes of the conservative spectrum, by the time I was fourteen or fifteen.
In the Presidential election of 1964, I became enthused by the Goldwater campaign and was disappointed when my conservative father decided Goldwater was too extreme and he had to vote for LBJ. Throughout that political campaign, I repeatedly tried to get my father to see what a mistake he was making and tried to get him to support Goldwater, to no avail. Those arguments with my father caused me to deepen my political knowledge as I sought support for my position.
So, when I was first handed that copy of National Review, I already had a large degree of political knowledge but with large gaps, and much of it coming from the fringe. In the pages of National Review I discovered the history of ideals and the foundations of western thought and was introduced to economic theory and political philosophy. I discovered critical thought and how to think in a logical manner. I came to discover how neither the extreme religious right nor the libertarians had a monopoly on the truth. I discovered that political ideas cannot always be expressed on a bumper sticker or what we now call “sound bytes.”
After reading my first issue of NR, I subscribed and for most of the next twenty-five years. I only discontinued reading, when my life got so busy, that I realized most of the issues were going unread. During those early years I read every issue cover to cover. National Review and Buckley kept me running to the dictionary looking up new words and Latin phrases. NR whetted my appetite to learn more and I read John Locke and Adam Smith and Edmund Burke and gained an acquaintance with the larger body of western thought. Just by the casual reverences to literary works and historical figures, I discovered there was so much I did not know, and I wanted to know more. Also, from the pages of National Review I read some of the greatest thinkers of the day such as Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, and James Burnham.
In addition to NR, for many years I rarely missed an episode of Firing Line. There is very little television that can compare today. In the format of the current day, people do not have conversations about politics or ideas but they shout slogans at each other. Buckley believed passionately in his ideas, but on Firing Line, he and a guest, even one with whom he strongly disagreed, could quietly explain and discuss their positions without denigrating into name-calling. Unfortunately I have failed to be as dispassionate and polite in some of my political discourse, but I admired it in Buckley. On firing line, I leaned a lot from Buckley, but also from his many guest with opposing views.
I also loved Buckley’s stammering pattern of speech, and lifted eyebrow, and his wit and charm. I, or course, did not agree with Buckley on every issue. Buckley was a stanch Catholic and had a deep religious faith. Most of my adult life, I have had a difficult time reconciling faith and reason. On most issues however, I found that Buckley guided the development of my position or we had views that coincided.
Buckley gave me a thirst for knowledge. Coming from a humble working class background, a poor rural school district, and having parents neither of whom had an education beyond a high school GED, and having no roll models of professional and educated people, there was no expectation that I would go to college. Going to college was something other people did; it was never considered or encouraged. After having completing my military service and then working a few years, I started thinking that perhaps, I should take advantage of the GI bill and go to school. So, at the age of 25 or 26 I entered college. To my surprise, I leaned that my fear of college was unfounded, and I was a good student.
If I had had a teacher or parents or someone who instilled in me an expectation to go on to school, I am sure I would have done so much earlier. I think the thing that made me finally decide to take the plunge was reading National Review. At some point I realized that with every issue I was reading the writing of smart, knowledgeable, educated people, and I wanted to be educated. I owe Buckley not only for my political education but also for my desire to become educated.
With the passing of Buckley, I feel that an era has come to an end. Buckley resigned as editor of National Review some years ago, and was only seldom heard from in recent years. But, his death leaves me grieving for our country and for the conservative movement. The Cold war may very well have been the glue that held the conservative movement together and times do change. With the passing of Buckley, it seems like the last link between what was the conservative movement and the politics of today has been severed.
I loved Ronald Reagan, and highly respected and admired Milton Friedman, but their passing did not seem like the end of an era. Their passing did not seem so personal. The loss of Buckley seems much more profound than those. I wish there was another way to mark his passing. I would have liked to have attended a memorial service to mark the occasion of the passing of this great man.
Goodbye, Mr. Buckley, and thank you.