William F. Buckley died today at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was at work in his study when death came. That's fitting, of course.
You'll be able to read millions of words about Buckley, his life and times, his exploits and his legacy. I don't really have a lot to add to this but I wanted to share how I understand him and his role. As anyone who's read this feature for more than a few entries realizes, I'm a cradle Catholic and my faith is central to my understanding of the world. In thinking about Buckley two important figures in Church history come to mind.
The first is St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, more than just about anyone else, was able to synthesize the currents of Western thought and integrate the large lessons of antiquity and bring them to bear in understanding God. Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica, which still underpins Catholic theology to this day. For conservatives, Buckley played a similar role. He gathered a talented cast of writers and thinkers on the staff of National Review, still the pre-eminent conservative journal in America. Buckley clarified the commonalities of classical liberalism, libertarianism and other strains of conservative thought. He began this process midcentury, during a time when liberalism was pretty much unchallenged, and stayed at it for the rest of his life.
I also think of St. Patrick when I think of Buckley. Like St. Patrick, it fell to Buckley to rid the snakes from the conservative movement. He was the primary reason that the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the America First acolytes of Charles Lindbergh and other people who traffic in hatred were regularly expelled from the conservative movement. From time to time these efforts caused him significant personal anguish, especially when Buckley had to get rid of his friend and protege Joseph Sobran, whose tenure at National Review had made him Buckley's heir apparent but whose work turned darkly anti-Semitic as the 1980s came to a close. Buckley understood that if conservatives were to have any influence in the government and/or the larger American society, they had to be seen as fair and as honest brokers. Even though it pained him greatly, Buckley sent Sobran packing. It was the right thing to do and Buckley knew it.
As he leaves the stage, conservativism is at one of its periodic moments of doubt. The current presidential campaign has exposed divisions within the movement. Buckley understood this and did not shy away from the challenges that lie ahead. While he will no longer be involved, he has left an enormous legacy that conservatives can use to excellent effect should they choose to do so. R.I.P.