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Inside the mind of the founder of modern conservatism

William F. Buckley, Jr. is a fascinating character. In some ways, he and Martin Luther are two of the most fascinating characters to me in the past 500 years. 

They have some similarities.

I realize this can be an odd statement on the surface, considering that Buckley was Catholic while Martin Luther castigated the Catholic Church’s doctrine. 

However, both came from a relatively elite and educated background and family for their times. 

Both started a movement that pushed back against the groupthink of their time. But also both in a way helped preserve something. Luther revealed the Catholic Church’s false teaching and helped preserve the concept of salvation through Christ alone through faith alone. 

Buckley helped preserve a concept on which our country was founded: conservatism and limited government. 

Both seemed like revolutions, but they were really preserving something that had seemed to have been overlooked and forgotten.

Buckley is often referred to as the founder of the modern conservative movement. He’s been credited for heavily influencing President Ronald Reagan (by Reagan himself). He founded National Review in 1955 and began the public affairs show Firing Line in 1966. (Ronald Reagan said he was a Democrat the first time he picked up a copy of National Review.)

So with that in mind, I began reading his autobiography “Miles Gone By” with interest, hoping to see a bird’s eye view of how he influenced conservatism and America.

But that’s not what I got. I did not sense a person who was dedicated to show the big picture or who was trying to show how he had a major place in history. On the contrary, this was clearly a man who loved the minutiae of life. The first time I started to read it, I got bored and stopped because he spent a lot of time talking about his childhood and equestrian endeavors. 

I always considered topics regarding horse riding and sailing as elitist. I grew up as a child of missionaries, so sports that involve as much disposable income as horse riding and sailing seemed the thing of rich people. 

No doubt, Buckley grew up as an elite. His parents sent him to private school, spent good money on tutors to teach him music, proper diction, language, and so on. Relatively little in his autobiography is said about politics growing up. 

He goes into great detail when talking about sailing and his other hobbies. He remembers specifics, and he utilizes that private-school educated language, diction, and vocabulary that his parents invested for him. 

His writing and word choice is precise and exquisite. He was often praised as well as criticized for his vast vocabulary. (There’s a chapter in there just about his vocabulary.)

He stops to take time to vividly describe details of his life. He is always stopping to smell the roses.

Here is one gem in which he describes celebrating Christmas on a sailing excursion:

“The girls were working on the decorations, and by the time the sun went down we had a twinkling Christmas tree on deck and twinkling lights along the canvas of the dodger. The whole forward section was piled with Christmas gifts and decorations, and when we sat down for dinner, with three kerosene lights along the supper table, the moon beamed, lambent, aimed at us as though we were the single targets of the heavens.” 

The entire book “Miles Gone By,” which is a collection of essays by Buckley over the years, is packed full of great writing. Every sentence is comprised of words carefully chosen, punctuation that weaves thoughts together splendidly, and verbs that are perfect for the occasion. Most of us will need a dictionary nearby when reading Buckley. It’s hard to take in and read in its entirety. Trying to read Buckly is like trying to keep pace with Michael Jordan while playing basketball one-on-one. It’s exhausting, but you stand in amazement the whole time. 

His writing is an art form if its own. Some parts remind me slightly of C.S. Lewis, but Lewis does not use anywhere near the vocabulary that Buckley does.

Toward the end, Buckley starts to discuss the conservative movement. After I waited patiently as he recounted his sailing expeditions, upbringing, and other endeavors, he finally mentions what I had been waiting for: talks of the conservative movement. 

He reviews how Barry Goldwater runs as a true, pure conservative — not one of those Rockefeller Republicans — in 1964 … and is promptly creamed by Lyndon Johnson. Then 16 years later Ronald Regans is swept into office, then wins about as solidly in 1984 as Goldwater lost in 1964. 

Buckley discussed some work in directing money toward conservative issues, but even there doesn’t discuss it much.

As I read I continue to imagine Buckley today and how he would fit in with the current conservative movement and Republican Party. 

It’s hard to imagine it. The current party doesn’t seem overly conservative. It certainly does not seem elitist, especially not in the age of Donald Trump. Even though Donald Trump is a billionaire, he doesn’t seem elitist. 

Buckley, who was a Yale graduate and New York City resident, was well known as being calculated, well articulate, and academic.

And perhaps that is where his appeal comes from. By coming across as an elite, he was the ultimate rebel. Liberals are constantly branding conservatives as being from backward, rural areas. Universities and academic establishments are known for being monolithic in their liberal values. 

Buckley pushed back against the groupthink of academic back in 1951 when he wrote “God and Man and Yale.” 

Perhaps by showing that he is an elite and an academic who can rub shoulders with Ivy Leagues and remain a pure, untarnished conservative, he shows that he is the ultimate anti-establishment and the ultimate rebel.

But perhaps he would not fit in today’s culture because he took time to enjoy the minutiae of life. Our world of Twitter and memes seems to often focus just on political events in a hit-and-run fashion. Today’s culture seems to always be in a hurry, rushing and chasing, yet never arriving anywhere nor catching anything. Today’s culture also seems to be about soundbites and quick fixes, it never fixing anything and never persuading anyone. 

That was not Buckley’s way. He would take the time to sit down and have a conversation with someone he disagreed with. Not a debate, mind you; a conversation.

As a society, collectively we today would not have time for someone like Buckley. However, perhaps individually we can learn something from him about how we can stop to smell the roses.

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