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February 28, 2008

The Last Lesson of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Buckley Leave it to Bill Buckley to die while writing. Buckley, age 82, was found dead by his cook at his desk Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. His son, writer Christopher Buckley, said that he was probably writing one of his famous columns. Buckley was also in the middle of writing another book.

Some on the right hail Buckley as the ultimate intellectual heavyweight, perhaps because he took full advantage of the English language's rich vocabulary, using polysyllabic words that most had never heard before. Yet while Buckley was capable of a clear exposition on conservative political philosophy or his cherished Catholic faith, I think his legacy is more unique than that of a political philosopher or informed layman.

Buckley's family came from wealth--oil and lots of it. As a result, William F. Buckley, Jr., was educated at the finest private schools, some of them in England and France. In an exceptional biography by John Judis titled William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, Buckley opened up about his odd accent, one that made him sound more British than American to many. 

But as it turned out, English was not his first language: French was. He learned it from his nanny. Buckley was teased mercilessly about it when he was a young officer in World War II. On more than one occasion, he had to insist that his voice was no affectation. "This is just the way I talk, OK?" he said. In short, he came by his accent honestly.

I bring this up because so many young conservatives have tried to imitate Buckley over the years, using big words, perhaps some even trying to talk like their patron saint, who predates Reagan and even Goldwater as the founding father of the modern conservative movement in the U.S. But they miss the whole point of Buckley's American life by doing so.

Bill Buckley--rich, with a strange accent and a well-born ease--led a life that shows us that the essence of American freedom lies in being your own unique self, with God's guidance. As Buckley went through the stages from firebrand to old sage, he began to reflect more on the meaning of his Christianity in books like Nearer, My God. He sought to develop a Bill Buckley that retained the best of his outrageous uniqueness while being sincerely humble before his God.   

It is a testimony to his humanity that he had so many liberal friends, many of whom have voiced their grief at his passing along with his conservative ones. That is a last lesson his life gives us: to see the humanity in others, even if you disagree with them vigorously. 

A debater to the core, he loved a good idea, no matter the source, and increasingly showed a broadminded generosity towards those he might have formerly skewered as a younger columnist. All those young people who grew up loving his lively wit could learn now to imitate their hero's enjoyment of a wide range of people and personalities.

Bill Buckley was an original and as proud an American as ever breathed. He shows us all why Jesus was emphatic about not discriminating against the rich. For while they may have a difficult time with their riches oftentimes, they are children of God like everyone else. Some of them, like Buckley, have much to contribute to society, given the chance. All of us do. And should.

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Jerry Pournelle points out that it was Russell Kirk who was the 'father' of 'modern conservatism' and that Buckely was the popularizer.

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