FEULNER: A toast to Buckley

The right-thinking trailblazer opened he way for modern conservatism

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To millions of readers, he was William F. Buckley Jr.: book author, magazine publisher, televised debater. To me, he was Bill: friend, ally, trailblazer.

Indeed, to remember Bill — who would have turned 88 last week — is to remember modern conservatism’s stellar leader.

Bill was an entrepreneur whenever he needed to be, and more often than most of us realized, starting National Review when it was not only politically incorrect, but intellectually inconceivable. After all, we were told, conservatives didn’t have enough ideas to fill one issue of a magazine, let alone one that would presume to follow a regular publishing schedule.

In today’s age of heated debates that feature more shouting than substance, it’s easy to forget that Bill conceptualized and hosted his own long-running TV series with intelligent discourse, not with participants yelling at the other guy across a table.

Conservatism in the 1950s was colorful, eccentric — and largely irrelevant. Some taught that theism was weakness and altruism a crime. Others accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist agent. In both cases, Bill shored up the intellectual levies that defined the course of the conservative mainstream. The result was a movement prepared for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run and the groundwork it laid for Ronald Reagan’s eventual victory.

I first met Bill in the fall of 1964 at the organizing committee meeting for the Philadelphia Society, also attended by Don Lipsett, Frank Meyer and Milton Friedman. I remember Bill writing a check for $100 so that I could open a bank account as the group’s first treasurer. The society, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next April, continues to fill a vital role as a meeting place for American conservatives.

Bill had a talent for encouraging the small beginnings of great things. He was a gardener who saw redwoods grow to maturity.

His association with the Heritage Foundation was a long one. He was a featured speaker in 1980 at the dedication of the Noble and Coors Buildings, our first headquarters, and he graced us with his wit and wisdom on many subsequent occasions.

Bill’s talent for hospitality and his unfailing good humor steadied and unified the conservative movement. At one small New York dinner party, he introduced my wife, Linda, to her heartthrob, Tom Selleck (who continues to entertain us with his wholesome TV show “Blue Bloods”). At his semi-annual dinners and discussions, all the disparate factions of conservatism were united and reminded that the battle against a common enemy trumps any squabbles among natural allies.

He was a source of constant inspiration to all on the right. His books “God and Man at Yale” and “Up From Liberalism” have been required reading since they were first published a half-century ago. In 1960, he helped form Young Americans for Freedom, based on the principles enshrined in the landmark “Sharon Statement,” which challenged future generations to think clearly, dream big and take on challenges.

When we were down, we knew Bill could cheer us up, and tell us what was really impossible, but worth doing nonetheless. Bill Buckley for mayor of New York City? Impossible, but his quixotic campaign paved the way for the election of his brother Jim to the U.S. Senate, and for intermittently good government in the city.

I can still hear him now, back in the early 1970s: “So, Ed, if you want to start a new conservative think tank in Washington, go for it, and I’ll help you any way I can.” A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of Bill and the seeds he planted to make an impact for the ideas we believe in.

For me, William F. Buckley Jr. will always retain his primary title: the inspiration of the modern conservative movement.

Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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