I have commented privately and written publicly more times than I can count how badly the conservative movement needs its 20th century torch-bearer right now, Bill Buckley. It is a common approach to take in times of frustration and even desperation – reflect on a time when things struck you as better than they are now, wax and wane nostalgic, and then wish a key person or circumstance of that era back into being. Buckley’s dear friend, Ronald Reagan, is the most often used culprit of such Republican fondness for the past, but my great longing is for Buckley himself, knowing that if there were no Bill Buckley there most certainly would never have been a Ronald Reagan. But I digress.
My passion for Buckleyism far transcends the political, as I find in Buckley a joy and passion for the daily things of life that I covet far more than mere electoral victories (which are always and forever, temporal). Buckley was not just a movement conservative; he was THE movement conservative, and the 21st century gets to fight against modern progressive humanism because in the 20th century there was a movement championed by the likes of Buckley, and that movement won.
The process of fighting the battle of ideas for truth and goodness meant a long life filled with engagement, and anyone engaged in intellectual and moral adventures for any period of time will engage in relationships. In relationships, we find our community. In relationships, we flirt with hate, and we pour ourselves into love. Buckley, a man I never met but whose legacy I am passionately committed to, strikes me as a man engaged in the act of relationships, whose own ideology played itself out in a lifetime of experiences and triumphs, all of which were in concert with relationships.
So along comes this gem of a compilation from Fox News correspondent, James Rosen, himself a tremendous heir of the Buckley legacy. A Torch Kept Lit features dozens and dozens of Bill Buckley eulogies written over the years, reflecting his life of relationships, his incredible connectedness to the most cosmopolitan forces of our culture, and his mastery of the English language. Even for a lifetime reader of National Review like myself, this compilation shows Buckley with more layers and depth than the most fervent of his disciples could have imagined.
And yes, it did re-provoke that desperate desire within me to have him back, but not just for the obvious reasons. The present trend of the right to reach for populist-nationalism as opposed to first things virtue and freedom is concerning. The concept of a de-intellectualized conservative movement is horrifying, though certainly avoidable. And I do believe in Buckley (and his heirs at National Review) we have all the remedy we need for what ails the lover of limited government. But what struck me most about decades of eulogy-writing from Buckley was the intense humanness of Buckley the man. His civility towards an intellectual rival such as John Kenneth Galbraith; his despair over the loss of his lifetime companion, wife, Pat; his compassion but disdain for the self-destruction through drugs and alcohol of respected friends like Truman Capote – in all of these angles we not only see a man for whom the 20th century had few peers, but we see a model of dignity, intellect, depth, and humanity that are sorely missed.
I heartily commend this gem of a book to any who care for history, and to all movement conservatives who hope no eulogy for our own movement is forthcoming. In Buckley’s life and death, we have a blueprint for the righteousness and strategy of the cause.