William F. Buckley, Conservative Icon, Dead at 82
William F. Buckley Jr., the erudite Ivy Leaguer and conservative herald who showered huge and scornful words on liberalism as he observed, abetted and cheered on the right's post-World War II rise from the fringes to the White House, died Wednesday. He was 82.
His assistant Linda Bridges said Buckley was found dead by his cook at his home in Stamford, Conn. The cause of death was unknown, but he had been ill with emphysema, she said.
Editor, columnist, novelist, debater, TV talk show star of "Firing Line," harpsichordist, trans-oceanic sailor and even a good-natured loser in a New York mayor's race, Buckley worked at a daunting pace, taking as little as 20 minutes to write a column for his magazine, the National Review.
Yet on the platform he was all handsome, reptilian languor, flexing his imposing vocabulary ever so slowly, accenting each point with an arched brow or rolling tongue and savoring an opponent's discomfort with wide-eyed glee.
"I am, I fully grant, a phenomenon, but not because of any speed in composition," he wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1986. "I asked myself the other day, 'Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?' I couldn't think of anyone."
Buckley had for years been withdrawing from public life, starting in 1990 when he stepped down as top editor of the National Review. In December 1999, he closed down "Firing Line" after a 23-year run, when guests ranged from Richard Nixon to Allen Ginsberg. "You've got to end sometime and I'd just as soon not die onstage," he told the audience.
"For people of my generation, Bill Buckley was pretty much the first intelligent, witty, well-educated conservative one saw on television," fellow conservative William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said at the time the show ended. "He legitimized conservatism as an intellectual movement and therefore as a political movement."
Fifty years earlier, few could have imagined such a triumph. Conservatives had been marginalized by a generation of discredited stands -- from opposing Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to the isolationism which preceded the U.S. entry into World War II. Liberals so dominated intellectual thought that the critic Lionel Trilling claimed there were "no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation."
Buckley founded the biweekly magazine National Review in 1955, declaring that he proposed to stand "athwart history, yelling `Stop' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it." Not only did he help revive conservative ideology, especially unbending anti-Communism and free market economics, his persona was a dynamic break from such dour right-wing predecessors as Sen. Robert Taft.
Although it perpetually lost money, the National Review built its circulation from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 in 1964, the year conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential candidate. The magazine claimed a circulation of 155,000 when Buckley relinquished control in 2004, citing concerns about his mortality, and over the years the National Review attracted numerous young writers, some who remained conservative (George Will, David Brooks), and some who didn't (Joan Didion, Garry Wills).
"I was very fond of him," Didion said Wednesday. "Everyone was, even if they didn't agree with him."
Born Nov. 24, 1925, in New York City, William Frank Buckley Jr. was the sixth of 10 children of a a multimillionaire with oil holdings in seven countries. The son spent his early childhood in France and England, in exclusive Roman Catholic schools.
His prominent family also included his brother James, who became a one-term senator from New York in the 1970s; his socialite wife, Pat, who died in April 2007; and their son, Christopher, a noted author and satirist ("Thank You for Smoking").