Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr.:An Intellectual's Intellectual

By Richard Vedder

I was greatly saddened to read yesterday of the death of Bill Buckley, the founder of modern American conservatism and a person of extraordinary intellectual powers and achievement. Mr. Buckley was a raconteur without peer, a great debater, first rate novelist, superlative commentator on public policy, a competent harpsichordist, sailor, bon vivant, and a wordsmith extraordinare. In short, he was the modern Renaissance Man, an erudite and witty person of great civility and cultural refinement.

It is worth noting that Mr. Buckley's rise to prominence came at an extraordinarily young age when he wrote about the sins and problems of higher education in God and Man at Yale. At the time of his emergence as a prominent intellectual, American conservatism was very small in magnitude and thoroughly discredited in the academy. The welfare state was both a cause and consequence of modern left-wing intellectualism as manifested in the growth of a largely government funded academic cadre that viewed conservatives as ignorant, prejudiced Neanderthals with no vision and little consequence.

Buckley changed all of that. He could outwit the cleverest left wing English professor, outfox the smartest liberal provocateur. And he did it with grace and enormous humor. Asked during his quixotic campaign for mayor of New York what he would do if elected, he replied "demand a recount." After Bill Buckley came on the scene, left wing academics had a much harder time dismissing persons of ideas on the right as insensitive dull morons. He made conservatism somewhat respectable, stimulating both men of action like Ronald Reagan as well as other academics. His conservatism was of the traditional, religious type, but he stimulated young scholars who were more empirical, analytical and libertarian.

A few years ago, I had the task of introducing Mr. Buckley to a lecture audience of a couple of thousand of persons. Usually I pride myself on my short introductions that include a bit of humor. But next to Bill Buckley, I was a rank amateur, and I simply did not try to be cute or witty. You could not out debate or out wit Willam F. Buckley. He had many reservations about the direction modern higher education was taking but, strangely, never returned vigorously to the theme that brought him to prominence. Milton Friedman was the analytical genius of the modern intellectual movement on the right, but Buckley was the original poet and polemicist. We mourn his loss --may he Rest in Peace.

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