I don’t write much about politics anymore. Having four young kids has changed my focus a good bit.
But there are times that, well, politics is personal, and so it was when I heard Wednesday about William F. Buckley’s death. I was quite stunned and sad, realizing that someone who had shaped my worldview, and because of that impacts my family’s life to this day, is gone.
I grew up reading Bill Buckley’s magazine, National Review. (I am not making this up.)
OK, I also cried for a day when Ronald Reagan lost out at the Republican nominating convention in 1976. I was 13. (In spite of all this, I managed to have a pretty decent social life by the time high school rolled around, but that’s another column.)
At a very young age, I loved the worldview of Buckley and National Review. The optimism — America is a great place, freedom is good, markets work — the wit, the humor, the sheer intelligence. It was different from anything else the 1970s offered. It challenged everything else I was hearing. I just ate it up.
When I went off to college, I wrote to “Mr. Buckley” that I couldn’t afford my own subscription to the magazine, but thank you for the offers I was getting in my own name (very exciting) — and I promised to faithfully read my parents’ NR when I was home on break. Seriously.
In return, Buckley sent me a note and a gift of a free subscription. And you know what? I really think it was from him, and not a staffer.
Born into a wealthy family in 1925, Buckley was of course a towering figure in every way. It wasn’t just that he founded National Review, hosted TV’s “Firing Line,” wrote dozens of books, sailed and, yes, loved to use big words. He was larger than life.
Our world, my world, my children’s world is, I’m convinced, different and better because of him.
(I suppose that it didn’t exactly hurt my attraction to my former husband that his father, Jeff, was a close Buckley associate and is a longtime senior editor at National Review. I never knew Buckley personally, but he gave my then-husband and me an enormous dictionary for a wedding present. Soooo Buckley. I cherished it more than the place settings.)
The American intellect Lionel Trilling famously said in 1950, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
Trilling was right. And it was only a tiny handful of conservative thinkers, perhaps foremost among them Buckley, who changed all that. That early movement, that first generation of conservatives, created a vigorous juggernaut that later gave us, even through its “failures” like the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan, the end of the Cold War and an entirely different way of looking at America and its place in the world.
It’s hard for a lot of people my age to even remember how the word “limited” described our formative years, until the advent of Reagan. Limited resources, limited wealth, limited horizons.
That landscape is entirely different now. Whatever America’s current economic or international problems, the uniquely American spirit of “anything is possible” has again been part of our consciousness for decades.
In fact, today I tend to think of people not so much as “liberal” or “conservative,” but as “pessimists” or “optimists.”
Maybe I’m still a nerd after all these years. But this is one suburban mom who is convinced that her children are growing up in a far more optimistic and dynamic world today because of the impact of Bill Buckley.
William F. Buckley, R.I.P.
(Betsy Hart hosts the “It Takes a Parent” radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. Reach her through betsysblog.com.)