So dapper with that noblesse oblige, so jaunty with that certain je ne sais quoi, he was that rare thing: an intellectual who morphed into a celebrity, so much so that he was the subject of good-natured parodies on TV shows such as “Sesame Street” and “The Smothers Brothers” and the movie “Aladdin.” Yet William F. Buckley Jr., 82, who died Wednesday, was the guiding spirit of a conservative movement that stuck a stick in the spokes of post-New Deal liberalism and, many say, pushed Ronald Reagan into the White House.
“Conservatism in the 1950s was in disarray. He cleaned it up,” said his son, author Christopher Buckley. “He not only made it intellectually sound - but because of his personal style, he made it cool.”
Buckley came across a bit like Thurston Howell III in “Gilligan’s Island” - declaiming his well-chosen words in a patrician, faintly British-sounding accent, accompanied by a rakishly arched eyebrow. In the program he hosted on public television for 33 years, “Firing Line,” and in his role as an engaged chronicler of the second half of the 20th Century, Buckley somehow kept an expensively shod foot in the worlds of elite intellectuals and regular folks amused by his elegant demeanor and elephantine vocabulary.
“In the 1960s and `70s,” Christopher Buckley said, “any stand-up comic worth his salt had a William F. Buckley impression.” And his father never minded. “He got a kick out of them. He was immensely secure that way.”
But it was as an essayist and author that Buckley made his first and firmest mark. He wrote more than 55 books and more than 5,000 newspaper columns, and in 1955, founded the National Review, a bedrock conservative journal.
“Anybody who writes about the political history of the 20th century will have to write about the National Review,” said John Judis, author of “William F. Buckley Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives” (1988). “Before that, there was no conservative movement.”
And after that, there was Buckley: the bon vivant with intellectual chops, the high-living aristocrat with the high IQ. On “Firing Line,” he brought grace, charm and an old-world civility to television, debating the likes of economist John Kenneth Galbraith and novelist Norman Mailer.
“Back in the days when the options in the TV universe were smaller,” said Rich Heldenfels, a columnist with the Akron Beacon-Journal who has written several books on television history, “it was possible for viewers to encounter those sorts of people, whereas today they’re elbowed aside.” It is difficult to imagine the politely erudite aura of “Firing Line” in today’s world of political coverage on cable TV, a world in which the yelp and the snarl have replaced the thoughtful pause.
Off the air, Buckley still kept busy. He was a wide-minded and perennially curious generalist, a renaissance man in an era that increasingly tended to produce only careful, plodding specialists. He wrote fetching books about his passion for sailing, and spy novels featuring a CIA agent named Blackford Oakes. His book on Barry Goldwater is scheduled to be published in April; he was working on another book at the time of his death, Christopher Buckley said. He was found at his writing desk in his Stamford, Conn., home at about 9:30 a.m.
That is what Christopher Buckley told President Bush when the latter called Wednesday morning to express his condolences. “I said, `Mr. President, you’re a Texan, and you’ll understand this - he died with his boots on.’”
Later in the day, a call came from Nancy Reagan, Christopher Buckley said. Then he called former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to tell him the news. “He wept.”
Buckley also was a canny talent scout, giving a crucial boost to writers who went on to illustrious careers, such as Garry Wills, Joan Didion, George Will and David Brooks. “It’s a stupendous pool of proteges,” said Christopher Buckley.
Even to people who never picked up the National Review, Buckley was a familiar figure, thanks to the quirky, endearing personal mannerisms on display in “Firing Line” that made him catnip to impressionists. Comedian David Frye did his Buckley imitation on “The Smothers Brothers,” a television show that aired on CBS from 1967 to 1969, and also on comedy albums. Even “Sesame Street” featured a puppet that spoke in an affected accent and employed arcane words.
“It was that voice, that silken voice” that made Buckley a gift to comics, mused Heldenfels. “And that smile. There was something serpentine about it. It was like Eve approaching the apple. He was enjoying himself immensely - even if you weren’t always sure he was going to do right by whomever he was talking to.”
Indeed, while Buckley’s political legacy may be intact - the conservative movement is now a powerful presence in American political culture - the sophistication he demonstrated on television, the easy charm and graciousness, the cordiality he displayed even to guests whose ideas he despised, have largely disappeared from the screen, replaced by raucous insults.
Christopher Buckley, author of best-selling novels such as “Thank You for Smoking” (1994) and “No Way to Treat a First Lady” (2002) said, “It was great to have a father with whom one could talk shop. He was a wonderful dad. He didn’t teach me how to write - you have to learn that on your own - but as an influence and a gold standard, he was invaluable.”
But the old man was no pushover: “He hated my last five books, for reasons that escape me,” Christopher Buckley said with a rueful chuckle.
“At the peak of his fame, he received more than 600 letters a week. He would personally respond to at least 200 of them,” his son said. “It was quite something to go through an airport with him. He would be stopped, literally, every 5 feet, and someone would say, `I don’t agree with a thing you say, but I love the way you say it!’”