William F. Buckley Jr., who founded National Review and did more than any other intellectual to create a conservative alliance between traditionalists and libertarians (an achievement that seems more impressive with each passing day), died this morning at the age of 82. I think my first introduction to Buckley was through David Frye's impersonation of him on I Am the President, so for me he was part of a pantheon of important political figures with distinctive voices from early on. I vividly remember watching a 60 Minutes interview with Buckley in the 1970s and being struck by how much he seemed to relish intellectual combat while remaining calm, polite, and self-assured, traits that also came through in his long-running PBS talk show Firing Line. For left-liberals, I realized, he was a house-broken conservative, witty, learned, and cordial even while espousing horrifying opinions. Although many of today's most conspicuous conservatives eschew that role, Buckley's dignified, thoughtful approach earned the conservative movement mainstream credibility and may even have persuaded a few people, instead of simply stirring up the mob.
In the early 1990s I worked for Buckley at National Review, although by that time he was not much involved in the day-to-day running of the magazine. He would see us at the editorial meetings every two weeks and treat us to lunch at a neighborhood Italian restaurant he favored. In conversation he was always sharp but gentlemanly. At one of those post-meeting meals I remarked that there was something to be said for the Articles of Confederation. "Yes," Buckley replied with a sly smile, taking a slug of red wine, "but not much." This formulation, which allowed for continued argument but also let me drop the subject without embarrassment, was of a piece with his confident but laid-back intellectual style.
As for substance, Buckley often called himself a libertarian; the subtitle of Happy Days Were Here Again, his 1993 collection of columns and articles, was "Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist." Buckley represented the classical liberal strain of modern American conservatism often enough that his endorsement of statist schemes such as "national service" (or, more recently, tobacco prohibition) caused real dismay. He especially endeared himself to libertarians with his courageous and persistent criticism of the war on drugs, a stance that continues to distinguish National Review from other conservative organs. Although Buckley's support for repealing drug prohibition grew more out of pragmatic concerns than a principled commitment to individual freedom, his prolific writings usually reflected skepticism of government intervention. In recent years this skepticism drove him to question another war popular with conservatives, one that could prove to be as long-lived as the war on drugs, if John McCain has anything to say about it. Buckley, in short, admirably combined an ability to fuse the disparate elements of the conservative coalition with a willingness to break them apart when he thought the stakes were high enough.