An admiring look at the career of William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008), public contrarian.
Presidential historian Felzenberg (Annenberg School for Communication, Univ. of Pennsylvania; The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, 2008, etc.) praises the “elegance, humor, wit, and grace” that Buckley brought to his many roles as “writer and editor, debater, publicist, organizer, political candidate, activist, and networker extraordinaire.” From his student days at Yale until his death, Buckley publicized and honed an unwavering conservative ideology, which Felzenberg asserts offered “a respectable alternative” to the nation’s pervasive “liberal orthodoxy.” Arguing that Buckley was hugely influential, the author more convincingly portrays him as an audacious gadfly and provocateur. The sixth of 10 children, he learned early how to speak his mind and garner the attention he coveted. Even as a schoolboy, Buckley “was judgmental about others and was anything but shy about voicing disapproval of people and views he disliked.” That behavior persisted throughout his life, as he attacked communism, atheism, and liberal values. He supported Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign, and he was “strident in his criticism of Dwight D. Eisenhower” as well as his successors, with the notable exception of Ronald Reagan. Until late in his life, he vehemently opposed efforts to protect the civil rights of African-Americans. Whites, he insisted, were “the more advanced race” and therefore “entitled to govern.” An ardent Catholic, he condemned homosexuality. Besides a prolific output of books, Buckley founded and edited the National Review, a magazine, Felzenberg writes, with only “minimal” influence on national policy. TV appearances showcased Buckley’s “quick wit, magnetic personality, and well-developed media savvy,” turning him into a celebrity. His notoriety expanded in 1966, when he launched Firing Line, a TV program featuring feisty verbal combat. The author does not consider Buckley as a brother, father, and husband (his wife, “his best friend” and supporter, is hardly mentioned), focusing instead on his relationships with politicians.
A well-delineated portrait of an impassioned conservative.