How William F. Buckley rescued me from lefty Bellingham

Through the pages of National Review one spring morning at Western Washington University, he brought me out of the darkness of liberal mush and into the light of conservative freedom.
Crosscut archive image.

William F. Buckley and President Ronald Reagan in 1986. (White House)

Through the pages of National Review one spring morning at Western Washington University, he brought me out of the darkness of liberal mush and into the light of conservative freedom.

Every modern American conservative - neo-con, paleo-con, whatever-con - is philosophically rooted in William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review, the journal of political thought he founded, such that our hearts are draped in black at the report of his passing at 82.

"All great biblical stories begin with Genesis," George Will wrote in National Review in 1980. "And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration."

Perhaps second only to the Bible in the life of this conservative, NR brought me to where I am today. As a baby boomer undergraduate at Western Washington State College in Bellingham (now pompously Western Washington University) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had answers to questions nobody bothered to ask. Filled with the hubris of youth and a burning sensation that came from a draft card tucked inside my wallet, I was as much "Hell no, we won't go" as anyone. Until, that is, I grew up and began reading National Review.

Moments of epiphany are remembered as if they were yesterday, so it's not surprising that at the instant I read of Bill Buckley's death, there I was again, a long-haired undergraduate wearing a white turtleneck and bellbottom jeans walking across the Western campus from the bookstore to Old Main reading my first-ever, just-purchased National Review and realizing that what I was reading reflected my thinking.

But in Bellingham? That could be dangerous. Western was second only to the University of Washington in radical chic. Being just minutes away from the Canadian border, it was nothing for Vancouver-based, Dennis Hopper look-alike (think Easy Rider) draft dodgers to slip back into the U.S. to preach to ant-Vietnam War demonstrators amassed before Bellingham's federal building.

It was de rigueur in those days to hate "The Man," support the Panthers, make love not war, smoke whatever (we didn't call it "Happy Valley" for nothing), and party at 1000 Indian Street for days on end. Western was rated by Playboy as the No. 2 party school in the U.S., second only to Iowa's long-since-defunct Parsons College. Those politics and that reputation drew me there, and I did my level best to live down to them.

But somewhere along the way, I fell under the tutelage of professors Gerard Rutan and Dick S. Payne in Western's political science department, and they introduced me to deeper obligations, which eventually led me to that fateful day to buy my first National Review. Since then, whether I've been a subscriber or not, NR and Bill Buckley have been a part of my life.

Starting with his seminal God and Man at Yale, a 1951 expose of liberal ideology at his alma mater, and followed by 1955's first edition of National Review, then the debate-format PBS program Firing Line, Bill Buckley brought classical conservative thought out of walnut-paneled men's clubs and bank board rooms to political respectability and influence, if not mainstream popularity. (That came with Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh.) Before Marlon Brando, Bill Buckley was the Godfather.

An Ivy League classicist and traditional Roman Catholic, Buckley founded National Review to articulate the principle that "A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'" Modernity for its own sake wasn't progress, it was excess, and atheistic communism was irreconcilable and anathema to both traditional American values and his deep faith.

Firing Line ran on PBS for more 1,500 episodes from 1966 to 1999. Befitting the harpsichordist he was, each episode was introduced with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. The true conservative sees a natural order to the universe, and in Bach's contrapuntal composition, Buckley saw that order musically expressed.

The program was a debater's dream. Political glitterati of the day would joust with him, knowing that whenever he tossed his head back and touched his pen to his lower lip, they were toast. Like a rapier, his tongue shot out to surgically dismember whatever liberal foolishness faced him that day. His unique style made such a cultural impression that the Walt Disney animated film Aladdin features comic genius Robin Williams imitating him.

Bill Buckley's beliefs melded his faith, the libertarian economic principles of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and an abiding belief in American liberty and freedom. Even so, he could be a contrarian when his principles dictated, as he was on America's Iraq War effort and the overall administration of President George W. Bush. But Buckley never criticized with an eye toward defeat; he simply thought America could and should be better served.

Through the pages of National Review one spring morning in Bellingham, Bill Buckley brought me out of the darkness of big-government, weak-national-defense liberal mush and into the light of conservative freedom. Not that I became just a Republican, mind you, since the dominant Dan Evans wing of the Republican Party - more liberal than some Democrats – in Washington state was even then in constant conflict with the nascent conservative movement articulated by Buckley and personified by a rising star and our political patron saint, Ronald Reagan. Even today, vestiges of that tension can be found in Washington GOP politics. Ours is a big tent, but the main entrance can be found on the right.

In 1980, I was living in Longview and a delegate to the Cowlitz County Republican Convention, where conservatives favoring Reagan stemmed the tide of John Anderson supporters who had no particular political beliefs of their own save whining. That triumph was followed by the state GOP convention in Burien, which went solidly for Reagan. Bill Buckley's intellectual fingerprints were all over both conventions in the person of hundreds of dedicated and motivated believers in the ideals of freedom and liberty, the least of whom was yours truly. If not literally, then certainly figuratively, each one of us had a rolled-up copy of NR tucked in our back pocket. The 1980 landslide of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter was almost as sweet a moment as the birth of my children.

Bill Buckley's philosopher to Ronald Reagan's king trickles down to blue Washington state today. The philosophy of limited government and low taxes find expression in Tim Eyman initiatives; on taxes Eyman and Bill Buckley read from the same page. Talk radio hosts such as KVI-AM's Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson read from that and other Buckley pages in their daily commentary: a strong America, traditional values, and, above all, liberty and freedom. A vote for Dino Rossi is a vote for ideas first expressed by William F. Buckley Jr. in the pages of National Review.

Just as John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah, so Bill Buckley prepared the way for Ronald Reagan; without the one, there wouldn't have been the other. Without Bill Buckley, a lot of us who came to the light through the pages of National Review would still be intellectually and politically wandering in a liberal wilderness. His mark is indelible, and he will be missed, but his truth marches on, because truth always marches on – even in a blue state like Washington.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors