November 24, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Bill Buckley: The most important Catholic conservative

John F. FinkWhether or not you agree with his politics, William Francis Buckley Jr. was an amazing multitalented man. He was undoubtedly the most important U.S. Catholic political conservative during the second half of the 20th century.

He was born in 1925, the sixth of 10 children in a wealthy Catholic family. He was to say, “I grew up in a large family of Catholics without even a decent ration of tentativeness among the lot of us about our religious faith.” However, he didn’t think much of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms and regularly attended a Latin Mass near his home in Connecticut.

Buckley wrote more than 50 books: 32 non-fiction, eight fiction, 11 spy novels, and five about sailing. Sailing was his favorite, but hardly only, pastime. He sailed across the Atlantic Ocean three times and the Pacific Ocean once in addition to sailing in the Caribbean.

His first book was God and Man at Yale, a critique of his alma mater. He argued that Yale University had strayed from its original educational mission. The book spurred him on to become the leading conservative writer in the country.

He was the founder of the conservative National Review magazine in 1955 and served as its editor in chief until 1990; he continued to write for it until his death. Beginning in 1962, he wrote 5,600

twice-weekly newspaper columns, called “On the Right,” that were distributed to 320 newspapers across America.

During World War II, he served in the Army. Then he went to Yale, where he excelled on the debate team. After his graduation, he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he served for two years.

His experiences with the CIA led eventually to his 11 spy novels, written over a period of 30 years, for which he invented the character Blackford Oakes, a CIA agent during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

From 1966 to 1999, he was host of 1,429 episodes of the PBS show “Firing Line,” where he demonstrated his remarkable multisyllabic vocabulary and biting wit as he debated with liberals. He had a celebrated feud with Gore Vidal, but the best debates were with novelist Normal Mailer, whom he respected. He also kept up a speaking agenda that usually included about 70 talks a year throughout the country.

Buckley was also a musician. He was an accomplished pianist, but the harpsichord was his favorite instrument. He played it with a classical orchestra.

While somehow doing all this, Buckley found time to spend most of the winters in a chalet in Switzerland. He would write in the mornings, ski in the afternoons, and, with his wife Pat, entertain guests in the evening. The Buckleys were also celebrated for their parties in New York. Bill was a wine connoisseur with an extensive wine cellar.

Buckley defined what the conservative movement was all about, determining who was and who wasn’t conservative. He rejected people like George Wallace and Robert W. Welch Jr., but strongly supported Ronald Reagan. He was credited for laying the groundwork for Reagan’s American conservatism.

Bill Buckley died in 2008 at age 82. †

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