William Francis Buckley Jr. (November 24, 1925 February 27, 2008) was an American writer, journalist, and broadcaster, and perhaps the single most influential figure in American conservatism. Starting his career as an upstart right-wing idealist, his first book God and Man at Yale criticized the unspoken orientation towards secularism and liberalism amongst the faculty in his alma mater. The overwhelmingly negative response the book received ironically inspired Buckley to launch a crusade against what he perceived was an unchallenged liberal consensus in post-New Deal America. To that end, he founded the National Review, a weekly political magazine whose stated purpose was to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." The magazine was foundational to what would become a full-blown conservative movement, unifying the American right-wing into a coherent force by forging an alliance between traditionalists and libertarians, as well as firmly excluding right-wing extremists and "right-wing materialists" (read: Randian Objectivism).
Buckley is most famous for his public affairs television show Firing Line, which ran for a whopping 33 years. While ultimately designed to promote his ideas, the series often featured incredibly sophisticated conversations between Buckley and his political opponents or allies, with Buckley interviewing the guest and both being cross examined by a panel formed from the audience. The show was distinguished from others of its kind from its (usually) unfailingly polite and civil atmosphere and high-brow nature, combined with Buckley's distinctive mannerisms and barbed wit. The show boasted an illustrious catalogue of guests to discuss various topics surrounding then-current events. Here and elsewhere, Buckley proved himself a masterful debater, impressing even his ideological opponents.
Though most of the books Buckley published were just collections of his essays and writings from the National Review, he was also an avid novelist, specializing in Spy Fiction with his Blackford Oakes series. He also wrote two autobiographies and a fictionalized account of the rise of the American right-wing.
Buckley famously feuded with author Gore Vidal, who he despised on principle. The two first met when invited by ABC to commentate on the 1968 political conventions, which the network did because they knew the two bitter rivals would boost ratings. The exchanges quickly deteriorated, culminating in Buckley, provoked by Vidal calling him a "crypto-Nazi" responded by calling him a "queer" and threatening to "sock [Vidal] in [his] goddamn face" on live TV. Buckley considered being cajoled into using a hateful slur and stooping to personal insults the absolute lowest point in his career, going so far as to pen an apology to the man he hated so much.
Buckley died in his Stamford, Conneticut home in 2008 of a heart attack.
His work provides examples of:
- American Accents: Perhaps the most famous user of the Transatlantic accent, which is every bit as part a persona as anything else.
- Acceptable Political Targets: Most of Buckley's career was spent attempting to invert this, as he felt that a liberal orthodoxy tolerated ideas that should be unacceptable (most notably, Communism) and took the falsity of ideas that he held dear for granted. To wit, his first two books were (1) an iconoclastic look at one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the country and (2) a spirited defense of Joseph McCarthy, of all people.note
- Author Avatar: Blackford Oakes, the protagonist of Buckley's spy novels, is pretty clearly a highly fictionalized version of himself. His exploits are a reference to Buckley's own past as a deep-cover agent for the CIA and, just like Buckley, is a WWII veteran, Yale graduate, passionate sailor and horseman, and avid reader of the National Review.
- Berserk Button: Buckley absolutely despised being called a fascist or a Nazi, or any association of conservatism with those ideologies. Exchanges on his show would become noticeably more tense if this occurred or even hinted at, and Gore Vidal pressing it caused him to completely lose his cool. This might have been a response to dubious political choices early in his career (see Old Shame below).
- Black and Gray Morality: In his Blackford Oakes novels, Communists are the ultimate evil, and their abettors are, at best, misguided Wide-Eyed Idealists. The heroes are heroes by virtue of being in opposition to the Communists, but are firmly entrenched on the I Did What I Had to Do end of heroism.
- Character Tics: On Firing Line, Buckley had a tendency to recline in his chair, raise his pen to his ear, and dart his tongue out. He would also frequently blink rapidly when asking a question.
- Colbert Bump: The attention he gave to Ronald Reagan both on Firing Line and in the National Review are credited in large part to Reagan's eventual prominence in national politics and his successful run at the presidency.
- Dirty Communists: As you can probably tell, Buckley hated Communism with a passion — describing it as "satanic" — and advocated for its destruction. He notably disowned Richard Nixon over the latter normalizing relations with China and the Soviet Union, as well as withdrawing from Vietnam.
- Everyone Has Standards: His modus operandi with the National Review was to make it clear who could and could not rightly call themselves "conservatives." Notably, Buckley excluded the rabidly anti-communist John Birch Society, whom he thought were wackos who gave genuine anticommunists a bad name. This also excluded Ayn Rand, whose militant atheism offended him, and white supremacists (eventually).
- Friendly Enemy: George McGovern (a liberal Democratic politician who represented South Dakota in both houses of Congress) was Buckley's political antithesis and Buckley always gave him hell when he was on the show. However, off the record, the two were very close friends, with Buckley describing him as his "best friend" and "the nicest guy I've ever met." He was also feuded in writing and debate with liberal economist John K. Galbraith, but nevertheless considered the man a close personal friend.
- Gentleman Snarker: Buckley's chivalrous, patrician demeanor did little to temper his acerbic sense of humor. Even the people he liked got a barb or two thrown at them.
- Long-Runners: Firing Line was one of the longest-running TV shows ever when it went of the air, having been on for 33 years and aired over 1500 episodes. This also makes it the longest-running show with a single host.
- My Greatest Failure: The incident with Vidal haunted Buckley for the rest of his life. So much so that when he saw the clip during a retrospective of his life, some 50 years later, he had a minor Freak Out and chewed out his producer for not having the footage destroyed.
- Old Shame: As a young man, Buckley was staunchly racist, anti-Semitic, and isolationist. For its first few years, National Review strongly supported Jim Crow and white supremacy in its editorials. As a teenager, he was involved with the non-interventionist America First Committee, which was more than a little antisemitic, and whose spokesperson — Charles Lindbergh — was a Nazi sympathizer.note These things deeply embarrassed Buckley later in life, which was why he tried so hard to write what he regarded as right-wing extremists out the conservative movement, and may have been why he was so sensitive about being accused of Nazism.
- Political Correctness Gone Mad: He critiqued feminists on Firing Line for this, insisting that their attempts to make English gender-neutral was an unmusical abuse of the language. At least one — Germaine Greer — agreed with him. During one of his televised debates on feminism, however, he found himself using "PC" terms (e.g. insistently using the term "spokesperson") without thinking about it.
- Pompous Political Pundit: Buckley himself made every attempt to avert this, but several major network political commentators are consciously patterned off the Buckley-Vidal debates, i.e. for the purpose of generating controversy rather than insightful analysis. Many conservative political commentators (who shall remain nameless) have imitated Buckley's pugilistic debate style but, lacking Buckley's tact and erudition, have become this instead.
- Pretender Diss: Despite the heavily pro-capitalist stance of her works, the National Review famously pilloried Ayn Rand as an imposter, scathingly equating her worldview with that of Marxism.Whitaker Chambers: Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing.
- Pun-Based Title: "Firing Line" is in part a reference to how the show is meant to put ideas "in the line of fire" so to speak, but is also meant to recall a "Fire Line", an artificial break meant to slow or halt the advance of a wildfire.
- Raised Catholic: Buckley's Catholic faith was a prominent part of Firing Line, not only frequently discussing current events regarding the Church, but also airing a special annual Christmas Episode wherein he discusses his faith with friend and colleague Malcolm Muggeridge.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Absolutely loved interrupting an elegantly constructed sentence with a well-timed swearword. His famous tirade against Gore Vidal was an unintentional and far less comedic example.
- Stop Being Stereotypical: National Review was in part a response to Buckley's frustration that there was no such thing as a "conservative intellectual" in America at the time, academia being dominated by liberals and leftists, and the most prominent right-wing figures being crackpots whom Buckley scathingly described as "knuckle-dragging neanderthals."
- They Changed It, Now It Sucks!: Buckley was a virulent critic of the liturgical changes brought about by the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, going so far as to call it "an aesthetic ordeal". He editorialized about it frequently, even in other publications, and dedicated an episode of Firing Line to discussing the question.
- Worthy Opponent: He and many liberal intellectuals considered each other this.