William F. Buckley

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I saw on a screen crawler that William F. Buckley Jr. had died at the age of 82. Television, which seems obsessed with celebrities provided they are young, sexy and brainless, hardly seemed to notice his passing compared with its coverage of such intellects as Britney Spears.

At one time, Buckley was one of the most famous men in America. At one time, if you wanted to read a conservative publication, you had no choice but to read his magazine, National Review. He was one of the key players in the resurrection of political conservatism, the best debater I ever saw, a fine blue-water sailor, a novelist and a former CIA agent.

He was also a brave man who, in the last public interview I saw him give, said that he was quite ready to die, having done most of what he wanted to do. He was a staunch Catholic. He was, of course, not without faults. His biggest fault, in my opinion, was betraying the trust of one of his protégés, Joe Sobran. When Joe began to quite correctly criticize the Israelis and their lobby went after him, Buckley fired him. He should have defended him. Everything Sobran wrote about Israel was true, and he was not and is not an anti-Semite.

In fact, Buckley was not a conservative in the traditional sense. He was an anti-communist and pro-capitalist. He was disdainful of libertarians and populists. He was not opposed to America’s imperialistic tendencies and criticized the traditional conservatives who were noninterventionists. He was inordinately proud of his intellect. And, as the Sobran incident illustrates, he was also an opportunist. But all of this amounts to a "so-what." Men come and go, and all are in part a product of their times. If they catch the spotlight of fame, it is usually for a brief time. The times change, and most people don’t. The new faces forget the old ones.

An old samurai said that most famous people are forgotten after 15 years. Can you think of who the famous were in 1993? What was the hit song? Who was the hottest singer? What film won the Academy Award as best picture? Most of us would have to fish out an old almanac to answer those questions.

Yet Buckley was one of the more influential men of his time. I know that as a young reporter, I was thrilled when he came to speak at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College and was even more thrilled to be invited to sup with him by his sponsor, who was a family friend. Buckley never noticed me, and there was no reason he should have. I mostly listened, which is what a young man should do in the presence of more knowledgeable people. He was, at least in the privacy of a restaurant, the same as he was on the public stage or on television.

Thanks to an oil fortune amassed by his grandfather, Buckley had the luxury of a comfortable life. His early education was by private tutor and at two English boys schools and a prep school in New York. He spent a year at the University of Mexico and then served three years in the Army during World War II. After the war, he enrolled at Yale, where he taught Spanish. He founded National Review in 1955 and began his syndicated column in 1962. He wrote a number of books. He led an extraordinarily busy life and died at his desk.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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