The son of a Texas oil wildcatter who brought his riches back East, the young Buckley acquired a posh education, plummy accent and conservative values. As an 8-year-old, he wrote to the King of England demanding that Britain repay America its debt for World War I.
Later, Buckley set about building a conservative movement. A torrent of words and argument, he bragged that he could write a column in 20 minutes. His TV show, “Firing Line,” aired for 33 years. He wrote 50 books and volumes of columns. His papers weigh several tons.
Ultimately, Buckley made conservatism glamorous, in a bipartisan whirlwind of parties and events, work and play. Besides riding his motorcycle around Manhattan, he once ran for mayor just for fun. Asked what he’d do if he won, he said, “Demand a recount.” His style:
- He encouraged debate. A top debater at Yale, Buckley started a magazine in 1955, the National Review, to keep up the argument.
- He played fair. Buckley relished sparring with worthy opponents like Germaine Greer on feminism or James Baldwin on race, but it disturbed him if he hurt someone personally with his pointed barbs.
- He rejected snobbery. Buckley famously stated during the fractious late ’60s that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.
- He retained his good cheer. With one notable exception, when he lost his temper on TV with Gore Vidal, Buckley kept things light. “To the end, he had a spring in his step,” his son says. A few days before he died, a pianist friend proposed a “musical evening” for Buckley to try out a program of Scarlatti for an upcoming concert at Carnegie Hall. “That will be splendid,” Buckley said, laughing, “assuming I’m alive!”