A review of William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, by Lee Edwards; and Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus, edited by Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball
William F. Buckley, Jr.'s death in February 2008 set off an avalanche of deeply felt tributes. He deserved them all. Editor, debater, columnist, lecturer, novelist, television host, sailor, and musician, for nearly six decades he had been an indefatigable champion of conservatism and a singular presence in American public life.
Buckley was probably the most important public intellectual of the past half-century. He was unquestionably the most prolific, publishing 55 books (both fiction and non-fiction); dozens of book reviews; at least 56 introductions, prefaces, and forewords to other people's books; more than 225 obituary essays; more than 800 editorials, articles, and comments in National Review; several hundred articles in periodicals other than National Review; and more than 5,700 newspaper columns. He gave hundreds of lectures around the world (about 70 a year, at the peak); hosted 1,504 episodes of Firing Line, and may well have composed more letters than any American who has ever lived.
Since his passing, two more of his books—already in the pipeline—have appeared, prompting his son Christopher to remark, "My father writes more books dead than some authors do alive."
In the years ahead, many writers will turn their attention to Buckley. His more than 500 linear feet of papers at Yale University will invite several full-length studies. In the meantime, the distinguished political historian Lee Edwards has given us, in William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, a gem at least as valuable: a compact, pellucid biography that pinpoints its subject's significance.
Edwards is exceptionally qualified for this task. An activist on the American Right (and friend of Bill) since the 1960s, he has written histories of the Heritage Foundation and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, as well as affectionate biographies of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Edwin Meese. A former president of the Philadelphia Society and now Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Edwards spearheaded the recent campaign to establish a Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The subtitle of his book conveys its thesis: far more than a gifted wordsmith and entertaining personality, Buckley "almost single-handedly created" the "intellectual and political movement" called conservatism, thereby altering the course of American history. Edwards shows how WFB's faith and family, along with the influence of four mentors—the arch-libertarian Albert Jay Nock, contrarian political scientist Willmoore Kendall, Cold War strategist James Burnham, and ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers—shaped the young Buckley's worldview. The book also recounts the rise of National Review, disclosing that its founder-editor kept the magazine afloat over the years with as much as $10 million donated from his lecture fees and royalities.
Along the way, Edwards cites numerous instances of Buckley's extraordinary generosity and organizational fecundity. He helped to launch or sustain Young Americans for Freedom (founded in 1960 at the Buckley family's estate in Connecticut), the Conservative Party of New York, the Philadelphia Society, and of course Firing Line, which turned him into a well-known public figure. Edwards says that Buckley "could have been the playboy of the Western world but chose instead to be the St. Paul of the modern American conservative movement."
But the hyperactive man of the Right was not simply an evangelist. He was also, argues Edwards, a "master fusionist" who pulled together (and embodied within himself) the disparate and sometimes discordant "fragments" of the modern conservative intellectual coalition. Edwards clearly regards WFB's ecumenism and institution-building as crucial to the conservative movement's success, and gently implies that conservatives today ought to emulate his avoidance of sectarianism, even if they cannot approach his eloquence.
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As if to underscore the point, Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball proffer in Athwart History a splendid collection of Buckley's finest "polemics, animadversions, and illuminations," including many reprinted for the first time. Kimball is the head of Encounter Books, co-editor of the New Criterion, and a long-time scourge of political correctness in the academy and the arts. Bridges served for a decade as National Review's managing editor, and for five years as Buckley's literary assistant. In 2006 she co-wrote (with John Coyne) a lively study of Buckley and the conservative movement, Strictly Right. No one alive is more familiar with Buckley's body of work than she.
Bridges and Kimball's anthology draws widely and expertly from Buckley,s voluminous writings—from trenchant analyses of the Cold War and the civil rights movement to meditations on Bach's Goldberg Variations and the demise of the Latin mass; from explorations of conservatism's meaning and liberalism's flaws to dissections of multiculturalism and rock music; from critiques of Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy to commentaries on the war in Iraq. Particularly riveting is the selection of Buckley's obituaries—he was a master of the genre—of Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, John Dos Passos, Evelyn Waugh, and a dozen others.
Reading this collection, one is struck by its remarkable freshness and timeliness—a reflection not only of Buckley's talent and joie de vivre but of the enduring relevance of his concerns. Consider three scattered passages:
The salient economic assumptions of liberalism are socialist…. The liberal sees no moral problem in divesting people of that portion of their property necessary to finance projects certified by ideology as beneficial to the Whole. 
[T]he historical responsibility of the conservatives is altogether clear: It is to defend what is best in America. At all costs. Against any enemy, foreign or domestic. 
Our governors are, for the most part, the enemy. The government, John Adams wrote, "turns every contingency into an excuse for enhancing power in itself." That was almost two hundred years ago. How right he was. Our enemy, the state. 
Behind the spark of Buckley's wit lay the fire of principled conviction.
George Will writes in the preface to Athwart History that Bill Buckley was "the most consequential political controversialist since Thomas Paine." In the present season of discontent, as our own souls are being tried, Buckley shows us what can be achieved when wisdom is combined with wit and perseverance, and moral clarity with good manners and ecumenical grace.